Kennedys partner: Young lawyers are happy to ask for what they value

Emily Unger talks why the "same old" approach doesn’t cut it anymore

Kennedys partner: Young lawyers are happy to ask for what they value
Emily Unger

With workplace culture and values changing in law firms, Emily Unger believes that there is both challenge and opportunity in attracting – and keeping – junior lawyers.

The Melbourne-based litigation lawyer, who made partner in May at Kennedys while on parental leave, helped to found the company’s Melbourne office back in 2017 and has been critical to the growth of the branch’s liability practice. Her ascension to partner heralded a milestone moment, with women officially comprising 60% of the Australian partnership.

In this May interview, Unger talks the importance of partners recognising and responding to what junior lawyers are looking for, the dual opportunity and challenge in AI, and defending a T-Rex in court.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I came into a career in law by accident. I started out studying physiotherapy, but it became clear it wasn’t for me. I then transferred to arts, and subsequently arts/law at Monash. I still was not sure if I wanted to practice, but while completing a traineeship I had the opportunity to work across and try out lots of different areas. I had always thought that litigation would not be for me, but I started to find that many of the things I was looking for out of work and life I was able to achieve through a career in litigation – facing new challenges every day, being creative, finding solutions to tricky questions, and collaborating with colleagues and clients.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of finding a solution to a complex problem and collaborating with my colleagues to do so. You can have five people looking at the same problem and they will all approach it differently. There are so many different creative approaches to the legal questions that come up day to day. I also enjoy the variety that litigation provides. Every day is different.

What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

I’m currently on my second round of maternity leave, however I recently ‘returned’ to attend the Kennedys APAC partners’ retreat in Perth. Kennedys has a big focus on collaboration between the regional offices, setting up a regular dialogue to help one another and learn between our different jurisdictions. I met with partners from Hong Kong, Singapore and other Australian offices to discuss the trends that we have been seeing, what issues our clients are facing, and to generally get that big-picture global perspective on our work. It’s fantastic to have that worldwide network at our fingertips and it was interesting to identify the similarities across our different jurisdictions.

The retreat also presented as a great opportunity to hear more about Kennedys’ global focus on being a responsible business. Kennedys is continuing to develop solutions that address ESG risk and has recently appointed Kate Hursthouse as the head of responsible business to help the firm achieve its sustainability goals. It is exciting to be at a firm which is prioritising these issues.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the organisation, if any, are you most excited about?

I’m particularly excited about the Kennedys IQ platform, which is designed to help clients manage their work process and legal issues more effectively. In particular, the Incident Manager product, which allows clients to capture detailed information when an incident occurs, is relevant for our clients in the liability space.

In personal injury matters, there are often big delays between an incident occurring and the claim being brought. These delays can mean that, by the time a claim is made, documents have been lost, witnesses can’t be identified and employees involved at the time have moved on. It is frequently a big area of frustration for both us and our clients. In most cases, everyone wants to put their best foot forward, but if information is not properly captured at the time of the event it can be difficult to defend a claim.

Using a swift, tech-enabled process to accurately capture information and details at the time of the incident means running and resolving the claim becomes much more straightforward. It gives our clients the best possible chance at a strong defence and makes their lives easier without the stress of attempting to re-gather details from an incident which occurred many years ago. It can also be tailored to a client’s specific needs to ensure that information relevant to that client is captured at the time of the incident. For instance, cleaning companies may need to record the time of the most recent inspection of the incident area, as well as details of any witnesses. Being able to tailor the product to our clients means that it can be shaped to be a truly unique product for each client.

Tech can and should make detail-oriented process much quicker, easier and simple. It should also reflect and respond to each clients’ specific needs. Kennedys IQ does just that.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

Becoming a partner at Kennedys is certainly the standout professional accomplishment of the past year. Being promoted to partner while on parental leave is a testament to the supportive culture at Kennedys. It is refreshing to be at a firm that understands and prioritises your contribution, regardless of the requirements of family life. I am very grateful to my colleagues for the support I have received throughout the promotion process and while on parental leave.

On a personal note, Alice, my daughter, is also my proudest accomplishment in the past year!

What should the profession focus more on?

As a whole, the legal profession still needs to be more focused on finding tech-driven solutions for our clients and exploring the dual opportunity and challenge of AI. AI is here, and more developments are coming. Our clients need to be ready to meet these challenges and uncover new opportunities and they rightly expect that law firms will also be making this their focus.

Taking a ‘same old’ approach just won’t cut it anymore. It’s an area that many firms are seeking to develop their proficiency, but more ground needs to be gained by the legal profession in tech solutions. Kennedys is at the forefront of exploring tech-enabled solutions for our clients, which is part of why I’m excited about developments at the firm. Richard West, the global head of client innovation and director of Kennedys IQ, has been taking a leading voice in the profession on tech and AI for several years now and it was wonderful to hear from him in Perth recently about developments in this space and the products available through Kennedys IQ.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

One area where there are many challenges – and also excellent opportunities – is attracting and retaining junior lawyers as workplace culture and values shift in law firms.

Junior lawyers are assertive in defining and asking for what they want in a firm. They are looking for clear opportunities, development and mentorship. It is fantastic to see that the younger cohort are happy to ask for what they value. Firms just need to be mindful that bright junior talent will move if firms can’t meet their expectations.

Now, partners need to recognise and respond to what junior lawyers are after. It’s our job, and our privilege, to help create the next outstanding generation of lawyers by cultivating emerging talent. Lawyers at the beginning of their careers are not afraid to seek a firm that aligns closely with their own values. That could mean a firm that has a real focus on sustainability and environment, or a firm that works at the forefront of tech and AI, or a firm that values working parents and flexibility. There is a real need for firms to see this shift as a chance to recognise, understand and respond to those requirements.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

Returning to work! Returning from parental leave also means transitioning into my new role as a partner. I’ll be working with the team, and particularly the juniors, to focus closely on our tech products and to keep finding new solutions to answer our clients’ insurance-law pain points. I’m looking forward to getting back into it and sinking my teeth into the new role.

If you had to defend a fictional antagonist/villain in court, who would you pick, and why?

The Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. She was born 65 million years out of date, and then locked in an amusement park – no wonder she was irate! I think a strong case could be made that she deserves her freedom. Not to mention, we can try to lock her up, but she’s already demonstrated that it doesn’t work very well.

Professor Ian Malcolm, aka Jeff Goldblum, said: “Life, uh, finds a way.” I’d amend that to “Women find a way.” Yes, the T-Rex did kill the insurance lawyer…but I’ll forgive her for that.

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