While Covid-19 has been professionally challenging for many sectors, Australian law firms and those in legal jobs have, for the most part, successfully navigated the pandemic.
Eighteen months or so after COVID hit our shores, as vaccination rates creep up and states begin reopening to something more akin to pre-pandemic life, many Australians can now see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Some professions and sectors were hit harder by the pandemic; others have thrived. And the legal sector appears to be one of these. A Thomson Reuters Initiative report that came out in late August pointed to a huge year of growth for law firms.
The 12-month period covering both the downturn in the economy and the emerging recovery saw average profit as a percentage of revenue rise to 36.8%. And, despite being lower than in previous financial years, the average increase in legal demand for FY 2021 was 2.2%, with demand for regulatory, M&A, banking and finance, and general corporate work driving this increase.
These figures come in stark contrast to the US, where law firms only saw a 0.5% increase in demand and a reduction in headcount at firms of 0.5% compared to an increase in Australia of 3.4%. This is a remarkable achievement that shows how resilient and agile law firms were during one of the more challenging periods of the modern age.
A factor that might be seen as underpinning this is what a July 2021 AFR article called “the humanising” of law firms.
In a survey the AFR did asking law firms what had been the biggest lesson they learned from the pandemic, responses pointed overwhelmingly to a shift in the personal side of the profession – the notion of increased empathy, both within the firm and outwardly towards clients.
Ashurst is a leading multinational law firm that offers advice to corporates, financial institutions and governments. Management identified early on that the pandemic would bring a range of professional issues its employees would be unaccustomed to dealing with, leading in turn to possible personal issues around mental health.
With wellbeing already a prime priority for Ashurst, the firm got on the front foot and established a “Wellbeing Hub”, set up support sessions and put in place an assistance programme that also extended to the immediate family of its employees. This was further augmented by a range of more casual employee-led initiatives such as virtual game shows and yoga to keep staff buoyed and connected during the pandemic.
Heathfield Grosvenor is a Sydney-based commercial litigation firm that took a proactive approach to the pandemic. Wanting to remain as connected to clients as possible, it quickly adapted to the new norm of client interaction.
It did this by establishing a comprehensive client check-in process it used to ensure its clients that the lines of communication were fully open and that the firm stood by ready to assist them however necessary.
With offices across the country, Mills Oakley is a broad-spectrum law firm offering advice across a range of sectors, including banking & finance, energy, mining & resources, and health & life sciences, amongst others.
Similarly, the firm quickly identified the need for comprehensive mental health support for its employees, implementing a 10-week campaign during which it brought in resilience project experts to help staff focus on mindfulness, emotional literacy, maintaining social connections, and more generally staying healthy and positive. This focus on employee support played some part in several of its offices achieving strong growth.
Danny King Legal
Danny King Legal is an employment law specialist that during the early days of the pandemic experienced a drop off in some of its more traditional business. However, this was replaced with providing advice to businesses navigating the pandemic as they went through restructures and worked their way through government assistance like JobKeeper.
And, from the employee side, Danny King saw a surge in enquiries around discrimination, terminations and the mental health impact of the pandemic.
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