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Does the COVID Crisis Show The Human Side of Law Firms And Help Women Lawyers To Remain in Big Law . . Or Not?

A recent article on the Australian Financial Review reported on King & Wood Mallesons chief executive partner Berkeley Cox who said the COVID-19 crisis had helped ‘humanise’ the workplace by removing the “shield of a suit” when video-calling from home with kids and mayhem occurring.

A cynic may also see the observation by Big Law firms trumpeting the work-from-home view as one that accomplishes at least a couple of major advantages for the firms – a reduced need for high-priced downtown real estate and an easier ability to retain the increasing number of women lawyers who exit Big Law due to the conventions of the traditional office environment.

The observations by Cox, which have also been made by other major law firm executives, was that the ability of a large firm to operate effectively when working remotely was a myth that had been debunked. It had also broken barriers that would hopefully last long after the virus crisis had gone.

KWM was like most law firms in moving to remote working, particularly after a staff member in Sydney was suspected of having contracted the virus while overseas (they hadn’t). Although the firm’s Perth office had re-opened Cox said working from home remained a personal choice.

Cox said “myths around productivity and working from home have been debunked” and the COVID-19 crisis might have been a circuit breaker when it comes to flexible working.

“What we are seeing is the institutionalising of trust as we work from home.” Although some had issues about how a firm that was not physically together could effectively operate in the case of several major firms like KWM and others, there was now what Cox described as “a more open mind” about the flexibility that can be achieved by having lawyers manage both their work and their home lives more efficiently – as well as ‘humanising’ the law firm of course.

He said one of his biggest takeaways from the past two months had been “the very strong correlation between wellbeing and performance”.

“This was new and difficult for a lot of people, so the understanding of the need to provide support for our people became more evident than it did in a normal day-to-day operating environment.”

He said video-conferencing into people’s homes “created a sense of authenticity in the interactions that might be lost in the office environment”.

Women Lawyers & Law Firm Diversity

Previous economic setbacks and recessions have seen minority groups and women unduly suffering from layoffs and related pressures on their professional lives.

As BloombergsLaw recently reported furloughs and pay cuts along with other measures are raising fears that minority groups and women could wind up bearing a significant shre of the pain from the COVID-19 crisis.

And a recent Times article indicated that the lockdown in the UK had not only created mental health related issues for lawyers, but also affected the incomes of women lawyers in particular.

Certainly measures taken to strengthen the role of women lawyers in major law firms has been weakened by the crisis, but the opportunity of creating a stronger position for women in the legal workforce through the inevitable home-working environment may ultimately pay the dividends so many have hoped for in terms of their future legal roles in large law firms in particular.

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