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Q&A: David Kearney – Why we need to set a Rolls-Royce standard

Q&A: David Kearney – “If, god forbid, there is a data breach then you’re insured against the cost of responding to the breach”

In the second part of a Q&A with Wotton + Kearney chief executive partner David Kearney, he outlines the firm’s approach to cybersecurity and discusses the importance of getting flexible workplace models right.

As you contemplate 2023, what are the key risks for Wotton + Kearney and other law firms?

Risks associated with data breaches are on the radar for our firm and many other businesses. This is especially the case given the increased threats associated with staff taking devices home, as opposed to using them in the secure environment of a traditional office. If it’s not our No. 1 business risk, it’s certainly in the top three. Not only are we mindful of the usual business risks linked with data breaches, but we also have a fast-growing cyber practice, so the last thing we want is to have a data breach when we are acting for businesses on cyber matters. The cybersecurity technology we use is Rolls-Royce and it must be.

How do you prepare your staff to combat cyber risks?

We engage our staff in regular cyber training and we send out phishing-style emails to staff to test their awareness of threats. We also monitor our systems 24/7 and make sure we can shut them down quickly if there’s any hint of a data breach. We are using a whole range of cybersecurity software and techniques, but what I ask my IT department all the time is, ‘Are we Rolls-Royce or close to Rolls-Royce standard?’ because we need to be, and it requires a significant investment.

What’s your advice for smaller firms grappling with cyber risks who may not have the resources of a big firm?

Some of what we’re talking about is not overly expensive – like insisting on better password management, or implementing multi-factor authentication. I recognise that some of the cybersecurity software is expensive, but there are some smart commercial and internal responses businesses can take to significantly mitigate against the risk of data breaches. I’d also encourage firms of all sizes to do an audit of their technology and to think about the resources they can allocate to training and protecting themselves from cyber risks. The other essential factor is to make sure your firm has appropriate cyber insurance in place. If, god forbid, there is a data breach then you’re insured against the cost of responding to the breach, which can be crippling.

In the wake of COVID-19, how has the firm changed, for you and your employees?

There’s a spectrum. If you’d asked me three years ago if I could envisage a world where I would work from home two days a week, not a chance. But I am enjoying the opportunity to work flexibly and I certainly try to do at least one day a week from home. At the same time, there were people in the firm who were champing at the bit to get back into the office. They are the parents of young children who struggle to work properly from home, or they are the twenty-somethings working from the kitchen bench with their housemates when they are home, or there are those who rely on the workplace for their social interactions. So, the opportunity to see people face to face again was something that people missed and it’s been a positive to get back in the office again.

What challenges does this flexible workplace model present?

Work-life balance can go two ways. While there can undoubtedly be better balance when working from home, the danger is around defining when the work day starts and ends. If someone works from home too much, there can be a demarcation risk between work and home.

Most of our team members look for some sort of guidance and the expectation at Wotton + Kearney is that people should aim to be in the office three days a week, but that is not mandated. If you’re a junior lawyer looking to learn and engage with senior lawyers on matters, you could be in the office four days a week, but what we are clear on is that it’s not to be five days a week. That includes those at partner level because there are so many benefits around working from home, whether it is around work-life balance, spending more time with family, or saving time by not having to commute.

We take a horses-for courses approach and if it doesn’t work for a staff member, then we can communicate to find a mutually suitable arrangement. People really just want to be treated like professionals. If they are delivering on their work contract – their financial and non-financial obligations and client matters – then it really shouldn’t matter. I describe the work transformation in terms of work going from being a noun to a verb. We used to ‘go’ to work – now people say ‘I’m working’. That’s an important change to emphasise.

What other advantages does a hybrid working environment deliver?

In the pre-COVID world it was harder for people to work from home, but we still found a way to make it work because we didn’t want to lose those people from the firm. But in any business, the easy option is to give opportunities – the best matters, the best client contacts, whatever – to the person next door, or down the corridor, and very often that wasn’t the person who was working from home. So, it’s crucial now to ensure that flexibility includes everyone across the organisation. We’re clear that we want everyone to flex and that means the opportunities, when they arise, are more likely to be spread across a diverse group of people. People are not being disadvantaged because they’re working from home, whereas previously when most people were in the office there was a clear disadvantage for those people working from home.

Have there been any setbacks with regard to implementing a flexible workplace?

I’d say candidly that we’ve been looking at how we get the mix right between home and office work. We had a productive COVID period when people were working from home. Coming back to the hybrid mix, we haven’t been quite as productive and we are still assessing why that has been the case. In Melbourne, for example, there was a significant lockdown period and that led to some people being tired and it may have been a contributing factor to lower productivity once they came back to the office. There’s also a period of getting used to being back in the office. Additionally, in law firms there should always be a lot of interaction between senior and junior lawyers and this interaction is important to productivity. When we were all in lockdown it was pretty obvious that we had to work hard on communication through forums such as Teams and Zoom. When we’re working in a hybrid environment, that need is less obvious. However, it’s important that people continue to work hard on interactions across teams and make sure people are fully utilised. Or, if they have too much too do then they should be talking about that because work overload can be a problem in terms of longevity in the job. So, getting the communication piece right is important, along with working through what the appropriate mix is for lawyers of different levels.

… And some other Wotton + Kearney lessons from flex work

Wotton + Kearney was awarded a Diversity Initiative of the Year Excellence Award as part of the Australasian Law Awards 2021. The award recognises the firm’s W+K FLEX initiative, which offers flexibility for all staff, for any reason. Since implementing W+K FLEX, key learnings discovered by the firm include that:

  • office presence doesn’t necessarily mean productivity, and flexibility doesn’t mean working less
  • remote client meetings are still productive and don’t compromise quality of work
  • if you empower people and trust them, they can be as (if not more) productive out of the office as they are in it
  • an empowered workforce translates into greater employee loyalty, wellbeing and engagement
  • allowing everyone to choose how they integrate work and personal responsibilities builds inclusion
  • a flexible workplace reduces the need for additional office space
  • a flexible employee base enables a scalable workforce across geographic regions, boosting access to diverse talent, and
  • universal flexibility aligns more closely with clients, most of whom were proponents of flexibility well before COVID.