As the coronavirus recession ripples across the global economy, many industries are facing lean times, and the law is no exception. However, there are several areas of law bucking the trend, with some practitioners busier than ever. Insights explored these areas of law and why they are growing through the downturn.
This is perhaps one of the less surprising areas of growth. With families across the country sent indoors, with key income earners made redundant via video conference, tensions are high.
This prompted national law firm Lander & Rogers to add family law to its Sydney offering, making the firm’s family law group the largest family group within an Australian commercial firm.
Referrals from accountants and other lawyers are driving growth.
“Those firms are also looking for family lawyers who can provide the expertise necessary to assist their clients to navigate the issues arising from relationship breakdowns and increasingly for the purposes of estate and succession planning,” Craig Henderson told Lawyers Weekly.
LGBTI and expat families represent particularly complex aspects of family law clientele.
Family law disputes involving expats can trigger “complex financial issues involving assets in multiple jurisdictions,” Mark Parker told Lawyers Weekly.
LGBTI family disputes also involve specific expertise regarding children born of assisted reproductive treatment or surrogacy.
Demand for employment lawyers is surging as mass redundancies sweep Australia. In July, Deloitte reportedly cut 7% of its workforce, or 700 jobs, in line with similar cuts from other members of the Big 4.
Employment lawyer Carly Stebbing, who heads up award-winning virtual practice Resolution 123 has also seen a surge in demand.
“Resolution123 has seen a thousand-fold increase in demand for our services,” said Carly. “Employees need quick, simple, and affordable advice on stand down, pay cuts, and redundancy. In response, we have launched Facebook live sessions to answer popular questions, visual scribes on your rights at work, and blogs on job keeper entitlements and obligations.
“We have also launched a low cost COVID-19 express telephone or email consult providing employees with 20 minutes of our time and advice. This is intended to help them protect their jobs. In addition, we also have a chatbot that provides templates to help employees navigate disputes at work.”
Restructuring and Insolvency
As organisations race to restructure to save operations and staff, others enter insolvency. These areas are likely to experience an increase push towards efficiency to drive down costs.
This comes amidst headlines of COVID-19 taking a bite into significant corporate profits, including bricks and mortar retailers, hospitality groups, and tourism.
Qantas, pre-COVID, was expanding its global routes. With borders closed and travel restricted, the airline industry is being hit hard. Qantas culled 6,000 jobs in June, standing down half its workforce, while seeking $1.9bn in fresh capital. Virgin, burdened with $5bn in debt, has already entered voluntary administration.
"There will be a lot of restructuring work probably, as businesses seek to try to position themselves,” Mahlab managing director Lisa Gazis told AFR.
Another area experiencing growth is regulatory work. This follows various royal commissions, particularly the Hayne royal commission.
This ‘sugar rush’ in regulatory work is innately counter-cyclical, as regulations to the financial services sector require fresh advice and compliance measures.
"Because of the regulatory environment and changes post-royal commission, there is still huge project work and litigation to do. So lawyers will keep working, they will just be working from home," Mahlab managing director Lisa Gazis explained to AFR.
"People are going to be relying on those services,” said Lisa “I don't think what we will probably see if lawyers in different areas busier and more under the pump depending on the [practice] area."
Cyber Expertise and Security
The great shift to work from home culture has tested the upper limits of home tech, and in many cases found it wanting. Insecure cyber-infrastructure, workflow processes, and the ergonomics of working from home also pose significant challenges to a remote workforce.
"We actually anticipate an increase in demand for partners and directors in cyber security advisory, which isn’t going away, particularly with an increased number of organisations mandating or encouraging people to work from home," Dani Matthews, principal at Derwent Search, told AFR.
Lisa Gazis anticipated demand for IT services to surge from her legal industry clientele, as law firms move to defend against insecure IT infrastructure and studies suggesting 15% of law firms are losing business to hacking and cyber-security concerns.
This reflects increasing numbers of in house lawyers dedicated to cybersecurity issues and practices. In a recent survey of 586 companies across 20 industries and 36 countries by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), 18 percent of organisations now have a lawyer committed to cybersecurity, up from 12 percent in 2018. These lawyers are charged with drafting and maintaining compliance with organisational cybersecurity policies and procedures.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
COVID-19 has also pushed alternative dispute resolution to the fore, particularly online mediation. As an alternative to costly - and, in the age of coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing measures, impractical - litigation in person, online dispute resolution has expanded.
Indeed, the Federal Court of Australia, Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia adopted online dispute resolution powered by Melbourne-based Inmediation. It features video conferencing to mirror hearing sessions and in-person mediation across complex commercial and family disputes.
"Without technology support right now, thousands of important matters before the courts would be put on hold indefinitely. And frankly, this can't be an option. Too much is at stake," barrister and Inmediation founder Laura Keily told ZDNet.
"Today's tragic pandemic has illuminated the crucial importance of technology to the operation of our justice system in a crisis,” said Laura. “Technology can not only aid the work we do as legal professionals, but ultimately help us move closer to making justice more accessible for all.”
Inmediation reported that over 2,000 new users from over 30 countries had accessed its platform for live court matters in April 2020 alone. Laura regards this push online as a step forward for the profession and the community it serves, and hopes it will normalise well after the pandemic subsides.The year of coronavirus is the year nobody asked for and has impacted the legal profession in many and varied ways. However, clear trends are starting to emerge, reflecting potentially counter-cyclical areas of law. This offers not only a possible pathway for lawyers from affected areas, but also a way forward for more cost-effective, swifter dispute resolution once the health crisis passes.