One size no longer fits all when it comes to a career in law.
Meet the people making their jobs in law work for them and the employers bending over backwards to empower lawyers to lead their best lives.
The future is here
Researchers say those working in highly structured environments are the people whose jobs are most at risk being overtaken by automation. According to a CSIRO report published in 2016, the jobs of employees who lack high-level interpersonal skills are also on the line.
Workforce studies from the US further predict that within two years, 35 per cent of the necessary skills will have changed for all workers, regardless of industry.
So what does this news mean for law? While it could spell trouble for lawyers of a more traditional bent, the permanent extinction of legal eagles is unlikely.
As the range of professional paths expands, there are an army of practitioners who have already evolved into their own brand of lawyer (among other things) before change is forced upon them.
Firms have also clued in to the fact that people who are free to explore their interests and talents outside of the office make the best lawyers. Overwork is no longer in vogue, and it is not uncommon to hear of meritorious part-timers being promoted to positions of leadership.
Lawyers Weekly speaks with some of the people who have set about on tomorrow’s business path, today.
When Wesley Rogers moved to Australia to take on a Juris Doctor (JD), there were misapprehensions about the grit and hard work to follow. He also had a clear sense, perhaps more than most, about the long hours which would become part and parcel of legal practice.
Although the law degree promised a tough slog for the Canadian expat, with demands only likely to increase once he landed his first job, law was a career that Mr Rogers had his heart set on.
“With my father being a lawyer back in Canada, I had no delusions of the industry that I was getting into. It’s one that has the reputation of long hours, particularly for those who are starting off, and I fully expected as much,” Mr Rogers says.
That was 11 years ago. Today he leads the workplace relations team at Marque Lawyers, after only five years with the Sydney law firm.
Mr Rogers describes the professional sweat of his first few years out of university as a “necessary evil” for any aspiring lawyer. But for all the griping and complaining of his circumstances, he says being overworked and staying back late was something he accepted as the norm.
“I did uni in Australia and entered law, like many do, through a clerkship program. And from there I progressed to my first job,” he says.
Career progression, of course, has been an important feature of Mr Rogers’ narrative. Like his wife, who is also a lawyer, he has poured a great deal of time and energy into his chosen field. But as other significant milestones came to pass, Mr Rogers decided that he wanted work to begin accommodating for his young family.
The timing of his decision was impeccable. At about the time he had planned to inform his boss that he would cut back hours at the firm to spend time with his newborn son Joshua, Marque Lawyers had him up for a promotion.
“I have always wanted a family and as that was becoming more of a reality – particularly after getting married and knowing that we were going to have a kid – I began to realise how important it was to me to take some time off, especially in that first year, and spend that time with Joshua,” Mr Rogers says.
“Knowing the flexibility that Marque offered to all staff but particularly parents, it was a reality that I knew I would be able to achieve. The hiccup was the promotion and taking on the workplace team at the same time, so that was what we had to work through.”
What Mr Rogers calls a ‘hiccup’ has turned out to look more like a meeting of the minds. By April 2016, he knew that his son would soon arrive and had come to understand that a promotion was also on its way.
“I was thinking about spending more time with my son and so I approached them and said: ‘Look, I’m grateful. Thank you for the promotion but I want to discuss what that means in terms of my plans of spending more time with Josh’. And the firm told me that it should not impact on my promotion at all – that the two things were separate,” Mr Rogers says.
“It wasn’t much of a negotiation. I just presented what I thought to be the best sort of path – which was me to scale back to part-time. The two conversations were had together and it worked out fantastic.”
As the lead of a practice group, Mr Rogers knew that having a regular and consistent presence in the office was important. So he suggested to the partnership a three-day per week arrangement, reduced from his ordinary five days at Marque.
The firm one-upped his suggestion and said the three days did not have to be fixed. The new workplace team head could then come into the office whenever he wanted, according to his needs and priorities.
“For my own purposes, I developed a bit of a routine and pattern for myself, mostly just to keep sane with having a six-month-old at home. But it was not as though I was required to be in the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – I just performed the hours I could do and when I could do it.
"If I had to work from home for whatever reason, I did so. If I came into the office, which I enjoy doing, then I would do that. So it was very flexible,” he says.
“It just meant that I made myself available when I could but still prioritising my family at that same time.”
Although the flexible arrangement lasted only a few months, Mr Rogers says the ability to take up the option at all means a great deal. His changed circumstances also saw a shift in priorities after he returned to full-time work. Nowadays you would have to hard-press him to work in the office until past 5pm.
“All along family was important to me and if I became a father, being able to be an active father, [was] equally as important to me.
“Initially, before I was at Marque there was a lingering concern about how work and family would align. I thought it was always something that I thought I would deal with at the time,” he says.
Litigation and regulatory lawyer Alex Cameron has worked for three of Australia’s major top-tier firms. Originally from South Australia, her career track brought her to Sydney where she ultimately took up a position as senior associate at international firm DLA Piper. Her supervising partner at DLA, Rani John, met the ambitious lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin in 2006.
Ms Cameron says the support of her mentor empowered her to stay with the firm and work remotely when family commitments called her back to Adelaide.
“In late 2015, I relocated to Adelaide with my family. It was my partner, Rani, who suggested we trial a remote working arrangement. I was astounded - who would have thought it [was] possible? But I was also grateful for the opportunity and grabbed it with both hands,” Ms Cameron says.
“I know many law firms are now seeking to permit and support all kinds of flexible work arrangements, but my personal arrangement (to work remotely from Adelaide) is above and beyond what I would ever expect from any firm.”
By mid-2016 Ms Cameron took time off to have her second child, and since returning has organised a three-day per week part-time arrangement. Predominantly, she works from her home office but also flies interstate to attend meetings and events when needed.
“The technology I use (laptop, dual screen, headset etc) is the same as what I would have set up if I was in the office in Sydney. I also travel to Sydney for meetings, conferences and events where appropriate. So far, the arrangement has been successful, allowing me significant flexibility to continue to work for DLA Piper, while also providing DLA Piper with an extra resource to call upon when needed,” Ms Cameron says.
She concedes that working at home can be lonely, but that is quickly resolved with an instant message or call from a colleague in Sydney. And although the option of flexible work became more important to Ms Cameron in recent years, mostly due to family commitments, she says that her sense of belonging to DLA’s office about 1,162 kilometres away has not diminished.
“I still feel a part of the Sydney team, despite my location, and still get to work on high-quality, interesting matters. I really couldn't ask for anything more!”
Adapting to new modes of work sooner rather than later could also keep those Gen X and Y lawyers from falling into dire straits, with future workforce predictions suggesting these people can expect to work into their 80s. And that goes beyond the option of flexible working.
In Australia’s 2016 census, a total of 104,050 people surveyed indicated that they worked in the legal services industry. More than half of those respondents self-identified as ‘professionals’ in that category.
Meanwhile, the Law Society of New South Wales recently released a national profile of Australian solicitors, which said that as of October 2016, there were 71,509 practising solicitors nationwide. Of those lawyers, 17.1 per cent were between the ages of 30 and 34, followed by 15.5 per cent of lawyers aged between 25 and 29. The question is just how this large cohort of Millennial and Gen X and Y are shaping legal business.
Sarah Hickey, a senior associate from King & Wood Mallesons, entered the profession in 2010 after a year working with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She admits to not having thought much about flexible work when she first started out.
“I would not say my expectations have changed towards flexible work as I have progressed. I think what has changed is how much I value it, and how I have used it,” Ms Hickey says.
“This probably has more to do with what has been happening in my life outside of work at any given time rather than whether I’ve become a more senior lawyer.”
Since joining the international Chinese firm in 2010, Ms Hickey has taken on a number of secondments – mostly in the financial services sector. Five years into the job, she accepted a 20-month seconded position as chief of staff to the firm’s global managing partner Stuart Fuller. She says that the flexibility the law firm was able to offer her made a world of difference when her work involved significant travel, unusual hours and operating in multiple time zones.
“I have enjoyed different career opportunities, as well as the benefits of workplace flexibility through informal arrangements, such as being able to work from home. Advances in technology have also made this much easier, particularly when undertaking matters across international borders where it is often not practical to meet in person,” Ms Hickey says.
“As we enter the age of the ‘gig economy’, it's important that we take advantage of advances in technology that allow us to be more responsive to client needs and to changes in the broader market.”
The gig economy is a concept that fits nicely with predictions that today’s teenagers can expect a ‘portfolio career’ comprised of multiple vocations. Young people today are said to be facing no less than 17 different jobs and five different careers over their lifetimes.
According to the CSIRO, in its 2016 Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce report, the emerging peer-to-peer (P2P) and freelancer economy could create challenges and opportunities for companies to restructure their workforce and become more efficient. However, the report also noted this trend could create challenges for employees.
Whatever the case, companies, the public sector and the P2P labour market have been put on notice: the gig economy will become the future normal.
In law, this is going on against the backdrop of a growing ageing profession. A significant increase in the number of solicitors aged 65 years and over was recorded between 2014 and 2016, with the number of lawyers in this demographic rising 7 per cent in a span of two years.
A number of law firms have addressed the issue by engaging the services of strategic change consultant Dr Graeme Russell. KWM, DLA Piper, Clayton Utz, Baker McKenzie and Norton Rose Fulbright have joined forces to develop a law firm-specific approach to flexible and agile work. Ms Hickey is one of five KWM employees representing the firm to develop the project.
“The Law Firm Flexibility Project is a cross-firm project,” Ms Hickey explains.
“The project aims to develop an innovative toolkit which we can use to approach flexibility in a more effective way based on job and work redesign.”
Trends may be one thing but generational expectations are quite another. Surprisingly, little cross-generational research has been done to compare the differences in attitude towards work between those born in the past 70 years.
And although the number of thought pieces which have gone to print about ‘what Millennials want’ are innumerable (which can loosely refer to people born from 1982 and the 20 years thereafter), a recent American study published in the journal Work, Aging and Retirement found certain traits to be more pronounced in the younger generations.
These traits included being less trusting, less empathetic and less confident that important life outcomes were within their control. The study also found that Millennials had higher self-esteem but were more assertive, more narcissistic and more anxious.
Writing about this particular study for The Conversation, University of Melbourne psychology professor Nick Haslam says a comparison of work values between three generations reveals small and subtle differences.
“For example, Millennials valued the extrinsic rewards of work, such as money and status, slightly less than Gen-Xers and only slightly more than Boomers. Similarly, Millennials were only marginally less invested in the intrinsic rewards of work, such as its opportunities for skill development and creativity, than earlier generations. They valued work that was directly helpful to others and socially worthwhile to a trivially lesser extent than 18-year-old Boomers and Gen-Xers,” Professor Haslam says.
He also pointed out that the results confirmed the rather “unkind stereotype” that Millennials value the leisure rewards of work – vacations, limited hours, an easy pace and freedom from supervision – more than Gen-Xers and especially Boomers.
“Differences between generations in work values are plainly much weaker than popular stereotypes would have them. Just as importantly, ‘generation’ seems to be an inadequate conceptual tool for explaining such flimsy differences,” Professor Haslam adds.
“Far from being radically different from workers of preceding generations, Millennials are very similar in what they want from work. Exaggerating the minor ways in which they diverge obscures their commonalities.”
The challenge for law firms looking to attract and retain fresh talent is to offer a workplace that can engage their broad interests. This also means providing opportunities, for flexible work and professional advancement, which answers the reality that every employable lawyer is facing: tomorrow’s P2P labour market.
A self-made brand
Hayder Shkara has used persistence and self-belief to make his own way in the world, and his strategy has been no different in law. An Australian taekwondo Olympian, he ranked seventh at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and has high hopes of medalling in Tokyo in 2020. A year ago he set up his own sole practice in Sydney’s CBD called Justice Family Lawyers.
“Doing my own thing, starting up my own thing, it just fell in line with my personality,” Mr Shkara says.
“At the back of my mind, I always knew I would be doing this at some point. It was just a matter of when and getting the timing right.”
Following his admission in 2013, and armed with degrees in journalism and law, the young lawyer began working for a boutique firm in Surry Hills. He says an understanding employer allowed him to take extended lunch breaks to clock up the necessary hours of taekwondo training that he needed and head out the door by 5pm to get on with his evening regimen.
“At different stages I have been a professional athlete; now I’m working in law; and before that I was running a Taekwando club – so that’s already three careers in my 27 years, and I’ve probably got a lot more to go,” he says.
Shortly after his return from Rio, Mr Shkara says he fell into a void and yearned for something more challenging to do with his time. He believes that doing it alone in law was a natural progression.
“The more I considered my options, the more I realised that I didn’t want to take any of them. So I thought: ‘What is going to be the best arrangement for me?’ And the answer was a setup where I could determine my own hours, work the cases that I wanted and generate whatever income that I could, working the hours I wanted to work,” he says.
“I’m always up for a challenge. I love building things and seeing things grow. I love sinking my teeth into something and seeing how deep I can get into it.”
When asked about whether people question his experience relative to age, Mr Shkara says it is not uncommon to be queried by older clients who expect to be consulting with a “silver eagle”. He is also quick to point out that being a good lawyer is not always synonymous with running a successful business.
“People these days are looking for someone that is going to provide clear, confident guidance; clear and confident instructions and probably more importantly, a high level of service.”
“And just because you’re a good lawyer I would say that does not make you good at business and establishing a practice. You’ve really got to be realistic with yourself and see whether your characteristics are in line with running a successful business,” he says.
In Mr Shkara’s opinion, getting one client through the door should always be top priority in sole practice.
“If you can do that, that’s great. And if you can you copy that and do it again and again, that’s the main thing that you need to figure out how to start off.”
Smart bosses flexing talent, fostering ties
Linda Johnston, the executive director of people and development at KWM, says the flexible work figures at her firm reflect a shift that has been underway for some time now. About 10 per cent of KWM’s legal staff and 9 per cent of partners have a formal flexible work arrangement.
“The market is shifting. The more diverse the skill set we can create, the better we’ll be in terms of what we’re offering our clients,” Ms Johnson says.
The firm has implemented an internal coaching program, where trained coaches discuss with staff the direction they are hoping to steer their career and how the company can help them get there. Ms Johnston says this approach, coupled with a carefully developed recruitment program, is part of the firm’s strategy to foster a network that outlives employment contracts. KWM knows that law is no longer a forever prospect when it comes to careers.
Even those who stay wedded to the profession are likely to move laterally, join the bar or the bench. Besides, in this day and age, it is not unusual for a single person to wear several hats and juggle a start-up with remote work and a separate day job.
“We know that law may take people in all sorts of different places and they may not stay here or they may stay here, go elsewhere and then come back again,” Ms Johnston says.
“We have invested a lot of effort and dollars in developing them, so you want to keep that connection because you’re personally invested. Pragmatically, you want to keep really strong relationships with your alumni from an emotional perspective, but also commercially, they are going to go out to clients,” she says.