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Transition: Law firms plot the road back to ‘normal’

Transition: Law firms plot the road back to ‘normal’

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Practice Management 

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Four Victorian firms reveal how they are managing remotely and the shifting challenges of returning to the office under COVID-19.

When COVID-19 hit, legal workplaces emptied out. Staff were sent home with laptops and hastily downloaded software to keep them connected with colleagues and clients. In a matter of days, long contested working from home policies became the norm and teams began sharing their home lives in video conferences that were sometimes “zoom-bombed” by children or pets. Client meetings transitioned to phone or online, and criminal and litigation lawyers attended virtual hearings. 

The financial impact has challenged many, with some firms reporting revenue drops of 50 per cent or more, resulting in staff lay-offs and pay cuts to partners and staff, although JobKeeper has allayed the worst effects in the short term. 

As restrictions are relaxed in some areas, firms are planning their eventual return to the office. But it will be a very different workplace. Until a vaccine is found, physical distancing remains. Hot-desking is out, open-plan offices are problematic. Common areas are being reconsidered, so too public transport and elevators. Until there are answers, working from home, at least part-time, seems the best option. 

Here’s how four firms are working remotely, and the challenging road back.

Moores 

There have been times over the past few months when Moores managing partner Tessa van Duyn wished she had a degree in logistics as well as law. 

The leadership team decided “pretty much as soon as the writing was on the wall” that the firm’s whole team of about 70 people would transition to remote working, she says, with three business services support staff in the office. 

“Even though we already had a flexible working policy, I will absolutely admit that it was a huge logistics exercise to transition to a 100 percent workforce working remotely and making sure everyone could log in from home, some of whom had never done it before.”

For a firm that thrives on collaboration, it has been a big challenge to do so remotely, she acknowledges. “I've had enough Zoom meetings to last me a lifetime,” she says. But the firm has managed to make the new arrangements work, and has even been transformed by the experience, she says. 

“I couldn’t have imagined six months ago that we could have gone to 100 per cent remote in a week, and that we could do it well. So I think in that sense it has been quite transformative and a really good opportunity to sort of reflect on what’s working and what’s not for us.”

Communication across the workforce has been crucial, Ms van Duyn says. She has used different communication channels in the hope of reaching everyone – a fortnightly Q&A Zoom meeting, email updates, a video interview series with people across various areas of the firm, plus the use of a web-based app called Parampara which provides a quick touch point for how staff are doing on a day to day basis.

“We’ve never experienced this before so we don’t know for sure if we’re doing it right, but this has been the perfect time to really embrace new ways of doing things and innovation. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong and we’re okay with that. [Our approach is] let’s just keep talking and be honest with one another about what’s working and what’s not.”

To deal with any revenue downturn, Moores has decided to cut partners’ pay rather than that of its lawyers or other staff. Partners and executives should be the ones to take the financial hit to protect their people during the pandemic, Ms van Duyn says. “If there is any dip in our profit that will be absorbed by the partners not the staff.”

Plans to return to the office will be dictated by state government directives, she says, with the firm working towards a 1 July transition to a hybrid model. “We’ve done a staff survey of people’s preferences, and they range from ‘get me back to the office as soon as I’m allowed’ to others who are flourishing working from home, with the majority of staff wanting a combination of working from home and working from the office.” 

When staff return to the office they will receive a welcome back kit with personal hand sanitiser and COVID-safe working information from Safe Work Australia. “We’ll have signs everywhere in terms of the numbers of people that can be in a room or space, touchless hand sanitiser stations and an isolation room in the event anyone suspects they’ve become unwell.” 

Jacob VargheseMaurice Blackburn 

Maurice Blackburn CEO Jacob Varghese remembers well the “crazy fortnight” in which 1100 staff across 33 offices across the country had to be relocated to home offices. “We got the removalists to take home everyone’s computer equipment and everyone got a $200 allowance to put towards ergonomic furniture. It was all a bit crazy and done in a bit of a rush but I think everyone was able to set up a pretty reasonable environment.”

By end March, everyone except a skeleton staff of mailroom and business services staff was working from home, including Mr Varghese. There have been no face-to-face appointments with clients since 30 March, with all meetings conducted either by phone of videoconference. 

Aside needing to boost the server capacity to cope with 1100 people working remotely at once, the transition was surprisingly smooth, Mr Varghese says. “The whole thing went much better than I’d feared it would in the middle of March. We really haven’t lost any productivity based on activity or hours, and clients have been very accepting of the situation.”

After being initially sceptical of videoconferencing – “it always felt a bit weird to me” – Mr Varghese has been won over during the pandemic. “I haven’t been in the same room with most of my executive team for 10 weeks but I still feel very connected to them and I feel like we all know what each other’s doing and what each other’s problems are.”

The firm’s team seems to be happy too, he says, with a survey showing that 96 per cent of staff are happy with the new working from home arrangements. 

There has been a drop off in business, Mr Varghese acknowledges. “Part of the reason for that is that people haven’t been out in situations where they’re getting injured – so we’re not going to complain about that.” But there are as yet no plans to cut anyone’s pay or work hours, although the firm is currently negotiating with the Australian Services Union on an interim agreement to tide it over the COVID-19 period rather than the usual three year agreement. 

Mr Varghese says what he is missing most are the “serendipitous” interactions that take place in the office environment, “the unscheduled, unstructured catch-ups you have with other staff, the gossip you share at the coffee machine or in the lift, the little threads of information you pick up”. 

But there will be no rush back to the office, he says. “First, we are going to follow government advice,” he says. And then the aim is to start with making offices accessible for specific activities, such as client meetings, conferences and strategy meetings, rather than bringing staff back on a day to day basis.

“It will depend on the office,” he says. “But we’re not expecting to go back to the way things were in February. There’s going to be some significant adjustments for some time until the government tells us that either the virus has been eliminated or that we’re safe to return to normal behaviour.

“We’re pretty cautious about half in half out approaches, and about CBD offices in particular. We’re worried about things like whether the public transport system can actually get people to work on time. If it’s going to take you twice as long to get into work you might as well spend that time at home working for a client rather than sitting on the train, or worse sitting at a train station.”

“And if it’s going to take you half an hour to queue to get in the lift and then you can’t even go down and get a coffee, then if you’re capable of working at home, you may as well work from home.” 

Gavin VallelyHFW Australia 

Gavin Vallely says it became apparent HFW’s Australian offices would have to move to a work from home model well before directives from state government. “We’ve got offices in London and Paris, and we could see what was happening in Europe and other places. So rather than sit back and wait for it to happen here we took steps to ensure we were ready.”

While the firm has always had people working from home,it suddenly had to cater for those numbers swelling from 40 to 140 across the country. “That involved investment in hardware and software,” he says, “licences to be able to access Zoom, increasing bandwidth for those in the firm working on very large files, as well as buying laptops and desktop computers for those who needed them.”

HFW’s offices have remained open with appropriate hygiene measures during the lockdown period catering to those who need to use the office infrastructure for virtual hearings, or don’t have the space or internet capacity to work at home. 

Mr Vallely says the Melbourne office is now looking to a “re-occupation plan” that is being refined in light of experiences of offices in other states. Perth is already back and Sydney will be shortly. 

Among the arrangements are alternate teams, where half the office is in one day and half the next “so that if one person tests positive it doesn’t necessarily take out the whole office”. Half the seating has been removed from meeting rooms, and there are markings on floors in common areas such as printing rooms. The firm is also covering car parking costs for those who prefer to drive in rather than use public transport. 

The firm is negotiating with staff for a 10 per cent across the board pay cut which 99 per cent of the 70 per cent of staff who have responded so far to a firm wide survey have agreed to, Mr Vallely says. “We don’t want any redundancies – this is a precautionary measure because we don’t really know what the landscape’s going to be like in three months time.”

The pay cut will include an earnback measure that will return the cuts on a sliding scale depending on the firm’s performance over the next few months. 

Nazim El-BardouhBardo Lawyers 

Nazim El-Bardouh’s immigration law firm Bardo Lawyers had recently expanded its CBD office space and had plans to hire three more staff when COVID-19 hit. Instead, he had to lay off two staff and reduce everyone’s hours. “We had been so busy – and then suddenly everything changed. It was like a storm hit,” he says.

In late March, the firm’s doors closed to clients and only staff who had separate offices could come to work. That left 10 lawyers and staff across the firm’s three premises, keeping to strict physical distancing. 

With Australia's borders more or less closed, the firm’s business has dropped by half, the balance sustained by work in the pipeline and family visa applications, which have continued despite the travel restrictions.

Two things have helped keep the firm afloat, Mr El-Bardouh says. One was the federal government’s JobKeeper program. “When that came in I was able to call one of the admin people we’d recently had to lay off to tell her she could come back to work. That was such a relief for everyone.”

The other was the fact that along with legal qualifications, Mr El-Bardouh has a Bachelor of Information Technology. “So I knew how crucial it is to keep on top of your IT.” Most of his firm’s systems were already conducted in the cloud via LEAP. 

“It would have been close to impossible to send the staff to work from home if we didn’t have this type of cloud software. Because nothing changes for them in terms of them running the file, it’s the same whether you’re doing it from home or from work.” 

The firm quickly got up to speed with Zoom and online audio visual links, and furnished all its work from home staff with laptops – “and most things in immigration law are done online so we could really keep going on like this for years”. 

While the drop in business is frustrating, he says it has freed him to work on business development and revamp the website and the firm’s IT infrastructure. The firm has also installed booking program Law Tap that syncs with LEAP, as well as automating the website to allow clients to enter their data online. 

As restrictions ease, Mr El-Bardouh is looking forward to meeting face to face with clients, especially those who don’t have the technology or confidence to communicate with the firm online. But he is all too aware that with the dramatic drop in overseas migration, it may be some time before business returns to normal. “We’ll have to play it by ear, and we may have to reduce our hours. But the situation will not stay forever, it will eventually phase out and it’s just a matter of how to keep afloat in the meantime.” ■


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