Oct 24

Leading Sunshine Coast lawyer, Travis Schultz, is calling on his industry to rethink its traditional long-hours culture in the wake of new industrial regulations requiring junior lawyers to clock all their overtime.

To come into effect in March 2020, the new regulations will require junior lawyers and paralegals to record all their overtime to ensure they are not being paid below minimum rates – rules that will require a fundamental shift to how overtime and long hours are managed by the profession.

A shift, that is long overdue, according to Mr Schultz of boutique law firm, Travis Schultz Law. Mr Schultz said a degree of recalibration of work life balance and working hours expectations would be required to sustain the future of the profession.

“As an industry, we need to recognise that the current generation of graduate and early career lawyers have different expectations and priorities to what the senior lawyers might have had at a similar stage of their careers,” he said.

“Just because historically, lawyers have worked long, if not ridiculous, hours as a badge of honour, doesn’t mean the current generation of young lawyers should feel compelled to ‘opt in’ to the culture that has previously provided a path to partnership in the larger law firms.”

The 2018 National Profile of Solicitors report (prepared by URBIS and commissioned by the Law Society of New South Wales) shows that between 2011 and 2018, an additional 3,284 lawyers were admitted to practice in Queensland alone, which represents an increase of almost 39 per cent over that period.

Mr Schultz said naturally, there simply aren’t enough new jobs to absorb that level of rapid increase in supply, which leads to a toxic work culture of ‘do what it takes’ to secure a job.

“The result of an oversupply is that there has to some extent been a preparedness on the part of the keen graduate to do whatever it takes to secure a permanent role and progress their career, and that has often meant working long hours with little reward other than the prospect of a permanent position, a promotion or achieving bonus KPI’s,” he said.

“While many law firms might consider that graduates and young lawyers won’t complain about being expected to work long hours because of their eagerness to climb the corporate ladder, those firms that ignore the risk of burn out are failing not just their employees but their organisation as well.”

Mr Schultz said as a result, the profession is seeing a proliferation of small and micro practices as lawyers splinter away from larger firms in order to achieve better work life balance – a shift he chose to make himself last year with the opening of his own boutique law firm in early 2018.

“At our firm, not only are professional staff given a degree of flexibility in their working hours, but they aren’t required to complete time sheets or even meet billable hour targets,” he said.

“We don’t use time costing as our staff hate the pressure of it and clients loathe the lack of transparency and the perception of inherently poor value in time costing models.”

“The feedback I receive from our team and clients alike is our philosophy of placing client’s interests, social justice and work life balance first and maximising profits second, is both working and welcome,” he said.

The 2018 National Profile of Solicitors also highlights that 48 per cent of admitted lawyers are within the 25 to 39 years of age group and for the first time, the profession is now 52 per cent female.

“These statistics say loud and clear that expectations will necessarily need to change if firms are to live up to their ‘family friendly’ and ‘flexible’ workplace promises,” Mr Schultz said.

“In 2018 there were 18,748 private law firms across Australia and of those, 79 per cent were sole practitioners.

“This represents a significant increase and unless large law firms change their ways, it seems likely the number of small and micro practices will only continue to increase as lawyers splinter away from firms who are unable to offer the work life balance that is increasingly being sought in 21st Century,” he said.

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