As Australia sinks further into recession and communities experience the impacts of increased unemployment alongside mental health issues and an aging society, it is the not-for-profit sector that many people turn to for support, community services and charitable programs. As the not-for-profit sector faces greater consumer demand, heightened COVID-related workplace health risks, and uncertainty over future sources of funding, we wondered how legal teams in this sector are managing.
To understand more about the impact of the pandemic on not-for-profit organisations we spoke with Lawcadia client Dion Gooderham, Director of Legal Services at Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of Victoria & Tasmania). A highly regarded senior in-house lawyer, Dion held senior roles within the Australian banking and insurance industry prior to working in the not-for-profit sector.
Through its many charitable and community service arms, the Uniting Church in Australia is one of the largest non-government providers of community services in Australia. With a very large workforce of employees, volunteers, members, and service providers and responsible for numerous sites and locations, the legal team have been kept busy.
A complex and diverse organisation demands a strong legal practice
“People assume that the Uniting Church is made up of churches and congregations and religious faith-based bodies, which it obviously is, but it’s also very much in the not-for-profit charitable sector with a number of very large institutions in almost every service sector you can think of: Aged Care, Health, Disability, Housing, Child and Youth Services, Alcohol Rehab,” said Dion.
Dion acknowledges that the work is challenging and probably more complicated than even the more complex esoteric financial services work that he was involved in earlier in his career.
“It’s very interesting and diverse and also very much linked in with Government as well, because a lot of those services are partially Government funded,” he explained.
With a team of 12 in Melbourne, 10 of whom are legally qualified, Dion describes the team as functioning like a mini law firm.
“They operate in practice groups – property, trusts, dispute resolution, and commercial,” he said.
The COVID pandemic along with related regulations and requirements has really added to the workload of the team, on top of all the business-as-usual work of running a legal operation of a large organisation.
“At the moment, the whole team is just keeping calm and carrying on,” assured Dion.
“We’re actually in the trenches, with the Uniting and Uniting Church teams doing the hard stuff.”
“We’re very much linked in with the front-line of all of the service providers within the Uniting and Uniting Church Networks. And they’re out doing the good work out in the community and we very much feel that we’re backing them up, supporting their efforts.”
Not-for-profit embracing innovation
Despite attracting an older demographic of members and congregation, the Uniting Church in Australia has witnessed a significant adoption of new technologies and ways of doing things in the COVID environment.
“We’ve got about 650 congregations in Victoria and Tasmania and … you wouldn’t expect them necessarily to be technologically advanced, but they’ve adapted to live streaming services and video conferencing all of their council meetings and everything, really, really well and it’s quite remarkable how quickly they’ve mobilised,” shares Dion.
Perhaps an unexpected silver lining, these innovative changes have, in some ways, improved the ability to deliver services.
“In some ways, it’s actually enhanced their ability to provide services to their own congregations. So, if you’ve got, for example, someone who’s a member of a congregation who’s incapacitated, who’s stuck at home and who couldn’t get to church, now live streaming of services has actually made that quite possible.”
Technology now embedded into the legal function
Like most of the world during the COVID lockdown period, the Melbourne-based legal team at Uniting Church in Australia rapidly moved to video conferencing for meetings. As well as focusing on adapting to more digital and technological ways of solving problems, they also had a greater appreciation for the systems that were already in place to support remote working and efficiency.
“We’ve just got better at using existing systems,” said Dion.
They have been using the Lawcadia platform for the procurement and management of legal services for a few years and, according to Dion, that has really become much more embedded.
“It’s just a much more efficient way of processing instructions and workflows and invoices and the like,” he said.
Looking to the future of the legal industry, technology and the cloud is here to stay and the move towards automation and digitisation of records is inevitable, said Dion.
Law firms adapting, but more progress on pricing needed
“I think most law firms have actually done a pretty good job in changing their operating models, accommodating client requests, moving to digital platforms etc,” said Dion.
“The one issue that I’m still struggling with how it’s going to evolve, is fee models,” he said.
Hourly rates have long been criticised by many in the legal industry, including Dion, as being a very inefficient way of delivering legal services.
“The reality is that it’s a very hard topic to wean the internal and external lawyers off,” explains Dion.
“We try as hard as possible to encourage firms not to apply hourly rates to their fee estimates, to try to have more project-based and global estimates on fees. Some of them do a good job and some of them are still very much stuck on hourly rates,” he said.
This is his main grievance about what firms are doing at the moment, although admits that he has come to the realization, perhaps grudgingly, that hourly rates are here for a while longer and has resigned himself to learn to live with it.
Call for greater transparency over legal fees
Dion has long been an advocate for improving communication with law firms and introducing good project management into the legal function. He observed that there is still some way to go.
“I think there’s probably still a reticence to have quite transparent discussions about fees and estimates and try to anticipate early when there might be changes or variations coming down the track,” he said.
Whilst there is still much more progress to be made on providing greater transparency and predictability over legal costs and scope of work, Dion acknowledges that most law firms are focused on their clients.
“I do think the vast majority of them have really worked very hard to adapt to the new world,” said Dion.
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