'An agile approach to the bottom line'

AL speaks with Shauna Gerrand of Gilchrist Connell

'An agile approach to the bottom line'

As Chief People & Development Officer at Gilchrist Connell, Shauna Gerrand is a firm believer that a successful, rewarding career in the legal profession doesn’t have to be incompatible with a well-rounded personal life.  

“I think we’re at a really good size in terms of being able to provide people with a balance of both,” says Gerrand. “We have challenging matters for our teams where they are working with sophisticated clients. But we really feel it’s important to put people first – when the financials on paper are the only bottom line, it will cost you in the long run regardless of what savings you think you’ve made in the short term.”

It’s a bold stance in a year where so much focus has been placed on the financial bottom line across the legal industry. Gerrand is keenly aware of the pressure that many of her contemporaries are under during 2020, noting that the demand for legal work has continued to grow even in the face of a pandemic.

“It’s presented law firms around the country with an interesting challenge,” says Gerrand. “Considering whether that demand is going to be ongoing or whether there is a contraction coming at some point, and as such, what the sustainable solution is in terms of balancing resourcing and technological investments to be able to meet upcoming peaks and flows.”

There are understandably concerns about a post-COVID contraction, Gerrand explains, and coupled with the necessity of setting up hybrid offices – and the attendant costs – it’s understandable that HR leaders in the field are trying to keep one eye on the future. Nonetheless, recruitment has remained steady for Gilchrist Connell and the firm received positive feedback from those it inducted remotely despite starting in the middle of a pandemic. 

“I think sometimes firms forget that what you get from people is typically a direct output of how you treat them,” explains Gerrand. “In a knowledge-based industry, people are your primary competitive edge, so why would you not look after them properly?”

In practical terms, this meant that during the pandemic people at Gilchrist Connell, well, pretty much just kept running as usual. There was a strong desire to avoid cost-cutting, and to maintain a sense of normalcy for employees during lockdown periods.

“I think we have the benefit of being a bit more agile than some of the legacy firms,” says Gerrand. “We don’t have the same bureaucratic procedures in place, and that means we can move faster, offer quicker turnarounds and be nimble in shifting market positions – which this year meant that we were able to make rapid changes and provide support to our people in the face of wider world events.”

Additionally, one of Gilchrist Connell’s key initiatives during the pandemic was to introduce paid “COVID Life Leave” during the harsh lockdowns in Melbourne, so that people could actually take a break from work while under stress.

“We were seeing that people just weren’t taking leave at all – understandably, because there was nowhere to go – but they were still getting run down and burnt out from the stress, and for some the additional responsibilities of home schooling or caring commitments,” says Gerrand. “So we implemented additional leave to ensure they weren’t forced to use their annual or personal leave in order to have some relief.” 

Gerrand also credits the firm’s willingness to look at innovative communication, technology and people practices as providing an edge for Gilchrist Connell throughout 2020.

“There’s often a sense in the legal world that it’s a race for second when challenging the status quo,” laughs Gerrand. “You see firms wanting someone else to take the risk - but then be right behind them in order to look progressive. But we’re very much about looking at better ways to do things, engage our people and increase efficiency. We’re obviously necessarily risk-averse when it comes to client outcomes, but we don’t mind taking a punt when it comes to internal processes. We’ll try things, and if they don’t work then we’ll try something else. Either way we’re going to get insights into how we can better service our clients.”

Looking to 2021 and beyond, Gerrand is keenly aware of how much the legal landscape has shifted within the last 12 months. Clients have become more open to flexible working hours, firms are more open to remote working and new services have been leveraged.

“I think we’ve seen a real openness in the industry to try new things,” says Gerrand. “Definitely we’re seeing creative openings – and certainly we’ll be looking at new ways to invest our resources to make a better firm. The year has obviously had its challenges, but I think we’re going to see great opportunities coming ahead as a result of a much faster rate of change than would have been possible pre-2020.” 

Gilchrist Connell were featured as one of Australasian Lawyer’s Employers of Choice for 2020

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