Ms Brennan said that, while law firms are busier than ever, many are not using technology properly, despite huge advances in the software on offer.
She believes that law firms need to look at systems and processes, while remaining mindful of ever-increasing regulatory requirements – and, in particular, to train staff adequately on implementing new systems and their attendant control measures.
“When we think back to 2010 over 2020 and the changes that we have seen over the last decade … it’s really important to stay ahead of new technologies,” she said.
Brennan pointed to the Law Society’s pre-election statement that Brexit presents an opportunity for Irish law firms, and says that maintaining a positive approach to implementing change is a necessity.
Many law firms still have only minimal GDPR controls, with potentially reportable data breaches not being properly flagged.
“The message isn’t necessarily filtering down to all members of staff of the requirement to report all data breaches to a senior person in the organisation within the relevant time period, so that they can make a decision [as to] whether it’s a reportable matter,” she said.
Even larger firms are struggling with very strict anti-money-laundering requirements, in terms of both business and client risk-assessment.
Staff retention is now becoming a major challenge, said the ILRS boss, with a war for talent intensifying due to the large influx of international law firms in Dublin.
A relatively low number of lawyers qualify each year, Brennan said, and the arrival of international firms is having a knock-on effect in terms of inflating salaries to possibly unsustainable levels, certainly for medium to small firms.
“Staff are the most important resource that firms have,” she said, but some challenges have emerged from the work the ILRS does with firms.
The institute has uncovered issues with professionalism among younger trainee and newly-qualified solicitors.
“It’s definitely something that needs to be addressed by law firms, as well as the challenge around having multi-generational age groups in an office, and the differences that are evident between how younger and older lawyers work.
“It’s important that firms address these matters and make sure that appropriate training is provided at both ends, so that the more IT-savvy younger generation of lawyers can share their skillset and knowledge with the, perhaps, more professional, older lawyers within an organisation,” she said.
The older cohort should also help their younger colleagues adopt a more professional approach.
A unique aspect of Irish law firms is the importance placed by Irish businesses on personal relationships with lawyers, Brennan said. This needs to be given serious thought, given the increasing traffic in legal staff.
Solutions to addressing the issue of staff retention, and to maintaining business relationships with clients, include implementing a succession plan.
This is not something simply for older solicitors to think about, Julie Brennan commented, though the profession at the moment has 15% of lawyers aged over 60.
Planning an exit
A ten-year period is recommended to prepare for succession, but many lawyers don’t give enough time and thought to planning an exit from their business.
“Proper succession planning also involves thinking about younger lawyers and more experienced lawyers who may be tempted to leave your firm,” she said.
A succession plan should identify measures to cope with the loss of any key personnel.
Firms must focus on wellbeing initiatives in order to retain staff, and spend time and resources on these important programmes. A recent survey showed that 90% of lawyers feel stressed in their job.
The Law Society has also recently launched a wellbeing initiative, Brennan commented.
Simple solutions to achieving a greater work-life balance, such as agile working, will benefit both employers and employees.
This is facilitated by advances in technology, but firms need to be mindful of IT and cybersecurity concerns.
The agile working policy of one top-five firm specifically bans an employee who works from home being in a room with either an Alexa or other smart speaker device, out of privacy concerns.
Flexible arrangements need to be available to all staff, not just those with elderly parents or young children, but must be offered on an equal-opportunity basis.
Finally, Julie Brennan said that law firms have a huge opportunity to embrace green working practices.
A top-five firm that moved to ‘default double-sided printing’ saved 1 million sheets of paper a year, she said.
“If the entire profession did that, we could save 34 million sheets a year.
“There’s a huge opportunity to lead the charge,” Julie Brennan said.
The ILRS is planning to launch an environmental quality standard for law firms in the coming months, she concluded.