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Employment: Zooming into a new role

Employment: Zooming into a new role

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Interviews Young Lawyers 

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The LIJ talked to four lawyers who have faced the challenge of starting a new job during the pandemic.

Getting a new job can be a challenge at the best of times but when there’s a global pandemic raging it's doubly so. Many law firms put recruitment on pause during Melbourne’s two main lockdowns, worried about declining revenue and the challenges of supervising new recruits working from home. Even so, some lawyers managed to find a new job just before or during the pandemic, making it necessary to liaise with new colleagues and clients and the courts remotely. We talked to four of them to find out what their experience of getting a new job during a pandemic was like.

Alexandra GonosAlexandra Gonos, Employsure

Looking for a new job in the middle of lockdown, especially when you’ve already resigned your previous job, can be a nerve-wracking experience, as employment lawyer Alexandra Gonos found last year. She decided she wanted to specialise in employment law litigation, but found it hard to focus on getting a new job while still employed. 

Once she resigned in September, at the height of Victoria’s Stage 4 restrictions, she had the time and mental space to devote herself to the task. But it was initially a disheartening experience. “All my interviews were via videoconferencing, and while that was something I was used to, it had its challenges. And people were saying the market’s not looking for juniors because of the restrictions and it’s going to be too hard to supervise you while you’re working from home.”

By October, Ms Gonos was starting to worry. “It was super stressful. I was feeling quite conflicted as to whether I’d made the right decision.” Then, in November her risk paid off and she got her dream job as an employment relations associate with employment law company Employsure. “It’s quite a progressive law firm and doesn’t have the normal hierarchy. It’s been perfect for me.”

Starting her new job in the first week that up to 25 per cent of staff were permitted to go back into the office, Ms Gonos was able to spend her first three days meeting her buddy and having her induction. But then it was back to remote working for the next three months. 

“That was hard, because I was still in learning mode and needing to ask lots of questions and you can’t just turn around in the office and say, ‘hi, can you help me with this’. But the firm was quite well set up in terms of working from home and very supportive when you needed assistance.”

Ms Gonos is now back in the office three days a week, and two days working at home. “That’s a permanent thing, which is great. They’ve worked out that lawyers get the job done whether they’re at home or in the office and productivity is still the same, so there’s no need for everyone to be in the office at the same time."

Ben WatsonBen Watson, Stary Norton Halphen

Less than two weeks after Ben Watson started his job at Stary Norton Halphen in early February this year, Melbourne went back into a snap five-day lockdown. In his previous role he had largely been doing victims of crime work that continued throughout the lockdown, but he had seen other employees affected as their criminal defence work dried up almost overnight. “Going into another lockdown was a bit of a scary thing to have happen in the first couple of weeks of my new job.”

Fortunately, the lockdown wound up quickly and Mr Watson now feels more secure in his employment, but the ongoing pandemic restrictions continue to affect how he goes about his job. While he is happy he can come into the office most days, he is still missing out on the kind of in-court training junior criminal lawyers usually benefit from.

“All matters are being heard online on the WebEx system, so that’s got some drawbacks in terms of training because usually when you start at a new firm you would be shadowing a lawyer in court from the back of the court.” Instead Mr Watson has to learn by overhearing his senior associate on an adjacent desk, often attending to his own onscreen matters at the same time. “But at least being in the office together you get that osmosis of ideas coming through.” 

The biggest learning curve has been managing meetings with clients remotely and ensuring they attend their online hearings. “Previously clients were told to get to court at 9.30 and they would do that. But it’s not always easy to organise them to get onto a WebEx link. It can be difficult to make contact. You have to try your best to know who their support contacts are and to get a bit more information out of them than you usually would.” 

Then there’s the juggling of court “appearances” in an environment where it is now theoretically possible to represent someone in Mildura at 10am and someone in Ringwood at 11am. “It’s a plus in that we’re able to practise in these different areas and the access to justice has obviously improved,” he says. “But at the same time, we’re often dealing with [scheduling] clashes and if something goes over time then you have to call on a colleague to step in on your behalf.” 

Mr Watson says that the year so far has been a learning curve about how to go about the practical side of dealing with clients and court appearances, “while the finer details of evidence and procedure and things of that nature have taken a bit of a back seat. But I guess there will eventually be more time for me to learn the nitty gritty aspects of criminal law.”

Bridget CouttsBridget Coutts, SMR Legal 

Bridget Coutts considers herself lucky to have started a job as a trainee family lawyer with Shepparton firm SMR Legal in February last year, just before the pandemic hit. But having relocated from Melbourne, her plans to connect with her new community were stymied within weeks when the whole state went into lockdown. “It was a little bit isolating and lonely last year. I didn’t see my family in Melbourne for six months because of the lockdown and the ring of steel.”

While the lower level restrictions in regional areas meant Ms Coutts was able to go back to the office before her city colleagues, all her interactions with clients and other lawyers outside the office have been via videoconferencing or phone. “Not meeting the client face-to-face for the first time makes it more difficult to build that relationship and the rapport that is so important in that initial conference. In some cases we haven’t met the clients at all from start to finish, and that makes it quite difficult, particularly when you might be negotiating and wanting to get a point across.”

That made it essential to quickly develop skills to ensure the client felt heard even across a screen, she says. “It’s really important to allow the clients the opportunity to express their story (via videoconferencing) and to afford them the opportunity to paint the picture as they would if they were attending in person. You have to try to break down those barriers of it being electronic and be as friendly and personable as possible.” 

The virtual hearings that applied equally to regional courts mean she has also missed observing the court in action. “We’ve missed out a bit on the informal interaction of being in amongst it, overhearing barristers, chatting over a coffee, those organic conversations that happen. It’s all behind closed doors now. So, unless you’re directly involved in a matter you miss out on those experiences.”

One plus of the new regime is that there are more checks to ensure parties have everything they need before court hearings, “because the court’s time is now so valuable with the virtual hearings that there’s more robust preliminary checks before going before a judge in court”.

But like many regional lawyers she is concerned about the possibility that hearings might remain virtual indefinitely. “I can see the positives for people not having to travel, but it’s important for solicitors to interact with counsel and I don’t think you get that same rapport happening when you’re working virtually. I’m also not sure clients feel they’re getting their money’s worth when they’re only dealing with barristers over the phone or via a zoom conference prior to a hearing.”

Georgia Miller, Hargreaves Family Lawyers

For family lawyer Georgia Miller the silver lining of lockdown was that it gave her time to think. At the time she was working as a family and relationship lawyer at a large law firm, but freedom from distractions, such as weekend social events and after work networking, meant she had time to slow down and reflect on her career. 

“It gave me the chance to turn my attention inward and identify what was important about my work, what my goals were, and how to achieve those goals.” 

She had already met family lawyer Georgia Hargreaves through a mutual friend. “I really admired Georgia and her practice, and I thought, what better time to reach out to a principal than in the middle of a lockdown?”

The approach paid off, even if, in the nature of the general slowdown, things took some time to happen. “Georgia was upfront and said she couldn’t make any promises because of the pandemic,” Ms Miller says. But by the end of the year the two had made contact again and in January this year she started her new job with Hargreaves Family Lawyers.

“It was actually good having those months of space between the initial conversation and Georgia getting back to me and asking, do you want to go ahead with this? It was a life-altering decision I was making during a life-altering pandemic and it was good to be able to slow that down.

“My biggest concern was about job security and changing jobs in the middle of a pandemic, including considering whether I had the necessary financial resources in case it didn’t work out. Unfortunately it’s one of those decisions that you don’t know until you actually take the leap.”

Another plus of the delay was that when she started her new job, the relaxed restrictions meant Ms Miller could attend the office in person, although it took two weeks before she met all her colleagues because staff were coming in on a rotation system.

There is no doubt in her mind that moving to Hargreaves was the right move, she says. “I worked out that I really enjoy working in family law, but I wanted to work with the broader range of clients Georgia sees. I’m really pleased with the move.” ■


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