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Commissioner Update - December 2023

In this issue:

  • Introduction from the Commissioner
  • VLSB+C office closure
  • New cybersecurity resources coming soon
  • Highlights from our latest annual report
  • Detailed SLP survey results
  • Exploring costs in Victorian legal services
  • New Keeping Women Out of the Justice System report
  • Improve workplace mental health by managing psychosocial hazards
  • VLA’s commitment to reconciliation, fairness and justice for First Nations Peoples
  • LPLC news
  • VLF updates

Introduction from the Commissioner

Since the end of last year, all Australian organisations and businesses including law practices have been legally required to take proactive steps to eliminate, as far as possible, workplace sexual harassment and other unlawful conduct under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Anna Cody’s new powers to investigate and enforce this positive duty came into effect on 12 December. She has previously named the legal profession as one of the industries on which she intends to focus.

As you prepare for 2024, I urge any law practices that have not yet implemented appropriate sexual harassment policies, procedures and training to make this a priority. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has some excellent resources to help you comply with the positive duty.

Sexual harassment was not the only issue to cast an unfavourable light on the profession this year. In recent months there has been criticism from certain sections of the media about the role lawyers play in the wider justice system.

While I’m concerned by any serious allegation involving a lawyer, I’m also a firm believer in maintaining a sense of perspective about what these cases say about the profession. As our recently tabled annual report shows (see more below), in the last financial year, more than 27,600 lawyers were registered in Victoria, yet only 3.6 per cent of solicitors had any complaint made against them.

It’s my view that most lawyers act with honesty and integrity, and without placing their own interests above those of their clients. And it’s why I keep saying Victorians can have confidence that the vast majority of lawyers not only do the right thing but contribute positively to society.

As another busy year draws to a close, my office and I extend our thanks to these lawyers for the important work you do and wish you a restful festive season.

Fiona McLeay
Board CEO and Commissioner

Our office will be closed from 22 December

Our office premises will be closed from 5pm on Friday 22 December and will reopen on Monday 8 January. 

LSB Online will remain available, however we will only be responding to calls and enquiries from 2 January. We will be prioritising urgent enquiries, requests or applications over this period.

Please use the lawyer enquiry form to lodge any queries.

Coming soon: new resources to help strengthen cybersecurity at your law practice

When cybercrime topped our inaugural Risk Outlook earlier this year, our message to law practices was to take cyber threats seriously. In the months since, a series of high-profile incidents reported across a range of sectors have only served as further warning against inaction.

The consequences of a cybersecurity breach go beyond the immediate impact of financial losses or leaks of confidential client data. Given the high level of trust clients place in lawyers to safeguard their information, the damage to your law practice’s reputation can also be significant.

A cyberattack on your practice may not even be targeted at your clients – the objective could be to steal information from other parties you interact with, including professional colleagues or key institutions within the justice system. In this way, the repercussions from such an attack have the potential to reverberate across the entire legal landscape.

With so much at stake, appropriate cybersecurity controls are an essential part of competent practice management. However, we recognise that for some law practices, knowing where to start can be daunting. That’s why in the new year we will publish two new resources to help you take the necessary steps to become more cyber-secure.

The first resource will describe important system and behavioural controls that reduce your exposure to cyberattacks. The second resource will describe some key ‘red flags’, or warning signs, of potential attacks, and explore more cyber-secure ways of working. 

In the meantime, we want to highlight some actions that will significantly reduce your risk of a cyberattack. All law practices should make it a priority to implement the following as soon as possible:

All lawyers share responsibility for meeting the ongoing challenge of cybercrime. Implementing appropriate controls and cybersafe practices – and focusing on the actions above as the highest priority – will assist you in protecting your practice, your clients, and the wider legal community.

Highlights from our latest annual report

For the most complete snapshot of lawyer demographics in Victoria, look no further than the 2023 VLSB+C annual report. The data we capture offer insights into cultural diversity, gender balance and changes in the types of law being practised. This year revealed interesting facts about the profession such as:

  • 60 per cent of lawyers who have been practising for 25 years or less are women.
  • India is one of the top five countries of birth among first-year lawyers.
  • More lawyers than ever are taking on government and corporate roles.

The report also showcases the breadth of our work to protect and empower consumers, improve legal practice and ethics, and improve access to justice. In 2022-23, this included:

  • Responding to 8,500 licensing and renewal enquiries from lawyers
  • Opening 969 complaints, and closing 1,105
  • Appointing 10 managers to law practices
  • Handling 2,285 trust account enquiries from law practices and external examiners
  • Releasing our Access to Justice Policy Statement
  • Starting work on our first Reconciliation Action Plan
  • Distributing $32.4 million in funding and grants.

Plenty more kept us busy and will continue to do so as we head into 2024.

Early career lawyers’ experiences of supervision: detailed survey results

In July’s Commissioner Update, we shared early results from our optional survey on supervised legal practice (SLP), which we carried out during the recent practising certificate renewal period.

Our data analysis is now complete, and the full survey results are available on the VLSB+C website.

Positive findings include that two thirds of lawyers (66%) agreed that SLP helped them to avoid making mistakes, and that they often or always discussed complex areas of law and how to navigate these with their supervisors.

Forty-two per cent reported that their experience would have been more positive if they’d had a better understanding of supervision, and guidance on what supervised lawyers should be doing or learning.

We are concerned that a significant proportion of lawyers (38%) reported challenging behaviours from their supervisor, with the most frequent behaviours being bullying (18%) and their supervisor using their power as a means of control over them (18%).

As part of next year’s practising renewal period, we will conduct a survey where supervising lawyers can share their perspectives on SLP. This will enable us to gain a balanced understanding of supervision, and results from both surveys will inform the development of initiatives to better support early career lawyers and their supervisors.

Pricing practice: exploring costs in Victorian legal services

Year after year, the leading causes of complaints made to the VLSB+C are client perceptions that their lawyer has overcharged them or provided poor quality services. We know from the profession that unhappy clients, in addition to lawyer uncertainty when it comes to complying with costs requirements, means that there is unhappiness all round.

As part of our efforts to effect positive change, we commissioned Monash University and the Victoria Law Foundation to carry out research into how lawyers go about estimating costs, communicating those costs, and managing the lawyer-client relationship.

The researchers interviewed accredited specialists in family law and wills and estates – the areas of law where we see the most complaints – for deep insights into best practice.

The report highlights examples of good practices among lawyers, including:

  • directly disclosing costs with their clients at the first interview, clarifying exclusions and inclusions, and providing price breakdowns where the work is complex or multi-staged
  • using regular billing cycles to prevent bill shock and keep their clients informed.

We will draw on the findings to help clarify our expectations of lawyers, and provide consumers with guidance to improve their capability to understand costs information.

Read the research report

Modelling change: how VLSB+C funding helped over 700 women and girls access justice

A new report highlights the success of our grants program in empowering organisations to develop and implement programs addressing the root causes of female incarceration and reoffending.

Back in 2016, the number of women in prison in Victoria had increased by 75 per cent in a decade. This shocking figure could not be attributed to a rise in serious crime. Nearly half the women behind bars were on remand for lesser offences, with most going on to avoid a custodial sentence. The statistics, like the real-life stories reflected in them, suggested the need for a different response.

For women affected by trauma, addiction or poverty, even a short stay in prison can be devastating. Their lives often depend on whatever support is available to them upon release, with their chances of reoffending tied to a complex range of issues. All of which prompted us to launch a thematic grants round in 2017 aimed at finding better ways to keep women out of the justice system. We went on to fund seven projects over five years.

Read the full story

Improve workplace mental health by managing psychosocial hazards

During October’s Safe Work Month, health and safety regulators across Australia shared resources on managing psychosocial hazards – a term referring to anything in the workplace that can harm someone’s mental health – which law practices may find useful. Our picks include:

  • SafeWork Australia's infographic setting out a management process for identifying, assessing and controlling these risks.
  • Worksafe’s WorkWell toolkit offering practical guidance for businesses of all sizes on how to prevent mental injury in the workplace.
  • The new Mentally Healthy Workplaces platform from the National Mental Health Commission, which brings together best practices from across different industries.
  • A webinar hosted by the Queensland Government on why organisations should make work design part of their primary strategy for improving employee mental health.

We’re always keen to hear what law practices are doing to improve lawyer wellbeing, so drop us a line and tell us about any initiatives you’ve found to be effective. When it comes to your own mental health, don’t forget LIV and the Bar offer a range of information and support. You can also explore our resources for more on these topics.

VLA’s commitment to reconciliation, fairness and justice for First Nations Peoples

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) recently launched their third Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which will span 2023–25.

Through their RAP, they’ve committed to respecting the expertise of First Nations stakeholders and working together in good faith, with the hope of contributing to self-determination.

They’ve also committed to improving the accessibility, cultural safety and responsiveness of legal aid services for First Nations peoples, and ensuring First Nations voices are at the heart of the services they design.

We commend VLA for the important work they’re undertaking, and endeavour to learn from their efforts as we develop our first RAP with a First Nations advisor – a RAP that’s driven by First Nations peoples’ experiences with the Victorian legal system, and our capacity to effect real change.


New cyber scam targeting law firms
LPLC wants to alert all practitioners to a ‘New Client’ email scam currently targeting law firms. Practitioners should be alert to emails (including from ‘aol’ and ‘gmail’ addresses) which appear to be legitimate, but are actually from cyber-criminals purporting to be potential clients wanting to engage the services of law firms on a conveyancing transaction. Read more

Windfall Gains Tax Support Service
Struggling to find the answer to a question about Windfall Gains Tax (WGT)? If you find that your question is not covered on the LPLC or SRO websites, LPLC insured practitioners can contact their WGT support service and speak with one of their Risk Managers. Read more.

Client brochures
LPLC has a range of resources available for legal practitioners to use to support their clients. They provide information and advice about common issues leading to claims. Access the resources here.

Office move
Please note that the LPLC is relocating to new premises. From Monday 15 January 2024, their new address will be Level 19, 140 William Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000. Phone and email contact details remain unchanged.

VLF updates

Here’s a brief round-up of recent news from our friends at VLF:

  • Mark your calendars for the 2024 Legal Laneway Breakfast, due to take place in Hardware Lane in Melbourne on 7 February and at Ballarat's The Lane at the George Hotel on 8 February.
  • Catch up on Volume 1 of the Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) for a broad picture of legal need in Victoria, ahead of Volume 2’s release soon.
  • Find out which four projects just received funding through VLF’s Knowledge Grants program.
  • Subscribe to the Victorian Law Week newsletter for updates on how to get involved in 2024.
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