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Private Practice Update

Private Practice Update

3 Things law firms are getting right…

As the author of a recent LinkedIn post that drew a thinly veiled comparison between Darth Vader, the Empire, your boss, and your employer, I’m well aware of how easy it is to knock law firms and highlight their failings.  However, as we’ve said many times before, the last couple of years have seen enormous changes take place in the private practice market in Australia, and, whilst I tend to lean on talk of how salaries have stepped firmly into fantasy land, there have been several other changes taking place across the market which will have long-lasting effects on the lives of lawyers.

  1. Flexible working is here to stay and we’re ok with it! – it is now entirely expected that our new ability to work flexibly isn’t going away any time soon.  Once the lockdowns were lifted there was a definite chorus of “let’s see how long this lasts” but, to the credit of most firms, they’ve embraced it and in many cases, the change has revitalised firm culture.  Team meetings are more meaningful (even if they’re virtual), “life crisis/plumber coming/cat needs feeding” guilt has largely gone whilst socials are more regular (and actually fun).  Law firms have woven flexibility into their fibre in a way that would never have happened had the pandemic not arisen.
  2. Vastly improved parental leave – many of Australia’s law firms (large and small) have moved forwards in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years to introduce far more appealing policies around paid parental leave.  With an increasing number of firms introducing flexible, fully inclusive policies for their staff, many lawyers are feeling an enormous weight lifted from their shoulders.  The policies, of course, assist with the cost of parental leave but by also demonstrating a better understanding of the family as a unit and, in many cases removing the idea of a “waiting period” before you can start a family, some firms are shifting retention into an entirely new gear.
  3. Stop counting hours (or at least stop looking like you’re counting hours)! – something we’re seeing more and more is a determined shift away from the relentless focus on daily chargeable hours targets.  Big law firms in particular are going to find it hard to fundamentally change the way they charge but that doesn’t mean their employees need to feel like hamsters on a wheel.  We’re seeing some Australian firms shift to annualised billing targets, yeah it’s like an average speed trap on the highway, but, like soft suspension, it can make handling bumps in the road far more pleasant.  Alongside bonus structures that really embrace non-billables and an overall more holistic view of the way you spend your day, many law firms are positively impacting their cultures whilst seeing no reduction in profits.

These are just three examples of how some of Australia’s law firms are moving in a direction more attuned to the needs of their employees.  There’s still a huge disparity between the supply and demand for talent and the current trend, towards spiraling salaries, which is a short-term fix that will, in time, flatten back out to normal.  Long-term retention (and attraction) requires wheeling out the big guns, the policies and attitudes that fundamentally affect lawyers’ lives long-term, and the last couple of years have seen some seismic shifts in the right direction.

Matt Harris

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