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Sam Jackson has been busy this year—he was recently promoted to Partner in Sparke Helmore’s Workplace team, he’s coming to grips with staying connected with clients and his team while working from home and has been working closely with clients dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sam was also recently awarded the Australian Financial Review’s Best Lawyers’ 2021 “Lawyer Of The Year Award - Occupational Health & Safety Law, Melbourne” on top of being recognised as a leading lawyer in the Labour and Employment Law category by Best Lawyers.

We catch up with Sam to talk about why he does the work he does, what changes he’s seeing as a result of COVID-19, forecast trends in employment and safety law, the skills lawyers need to do the job he does, the difficult decisions he deals with and the impact that Leigh Sales’ book 'Any Ordinary Day’ had on him.

What drew you to practise employment and safety law? 

After completing a Human Resource Management major for my Commerce degree at the University of Tasmania, employment law and industrial relations seemed like a natural fit for me. In fact, I was certain that employment law and industrial relations was the area for me from about half way through university. I was lucky in that respect.

I didn’t have any exposure to safety law until I started working as a graduate at Freehills in 2009. Two of the first court hearings I attended as a graduate were safety matters including a criminal plea hearing and a jury empanelment, both in the County Court. I was drawn to the area instantly. It allowed me to combine my interest in criminal law with my new role at a corporate firm. Two things I had previously thought I’d never be able to combine.

The most important thing that has kept me working in employment and safety law in the years since I started as a bright-eyed graduate is the central role played by individual people in every single matter. Both employment and safety matters have people at the core. These areas of law also expose you to a wide variety of interesting workplaces and the myriad of issues, personalities and technologies that come with them. These factors combined mean that no two days are ever the same. No employment or safety lawyer will ever say their job is boring!

How has the current issue with COVID-19 affected your area of law and the clients you work with?

The biggest impact has been the shift to working from home. Our entire Melbourne Workplace team has now been working from home (WFH) for more than six weeks. Most of our clients are doing the same.

We have a great team and great clients, and everyone has adapted well to this new environment. We’ve been attending meetings and even court hearings via video, figuring out new ways to work more efficiently using technology that will stay with us long after COVID-19 passes and staying connected with each other through regular team meetings and catch-ups with our clients.  

From a work perspective, life for employment and safety lawyers has been extremely busy since COVID-19 itself, and the measures taken in response, escalated in Australia in March. Although most safety hearings and trials have been adjourned, the work has moved to assisting clients to manage the health and safety of their people during the pandemic.

From an employment perspective, the unprecedented reduction in demand across the economy, the pace of changes made by Governments to laws and regulations and the introduction of support packages has seen a strong uptick in work assisting clients to manage their workforce during the pandemic. We are also already starting to see the inevitable litigation that will arise associated with the decisions made by employers during their response.

What do you see are the major issues or trends in workplace and safety law for the coming year?

This question has both a BC and an AC answer!

Before COVID-19, my answer would have been:

  • the introduction of industrial manslaughter laws

  • the increasing regulatory focus on mental health, including more WHS investigations and prosecutions relating to risks to the mental health of workers

  • wage regulation, compliance and underpayment

  • changes to the annualised salary provisions in Modern Awards

  • issues from the WorkPac decision regarding casual employees, and

  • issues from the Mondelez decision regarding personal/carer’s leave.  

After COVID-19, the only answer can be COVID-19! But the above issues still loom large and need to be carefully managed by employers throughout 2020. They won’t go away. As things settle over the coming months, I suspect employers, employees and regulators will once again have the time and energy to focus on these issues.

What are the types of professional and personal skills that you think people need to succeed in your area of work?

1. Team-work, 2. determination and 3. compassion and empathy.

  1. Team-work because anyone who thinks they can succeed in the legal profession without a team of dynamic, intelligent and diverse lawyers and support staff around them is simply fooling themselves.
  2. Determination because results don’t come easily. We work in a profession where corners cannot be cut. Read the case, not the summary. Chase that last rabbit down that last burrow. It could be the smoking gun. Sometimes you’ll end up being the last one in the office, but don’t work long hours just for the sake of them. Make the most of the quieter times by spending time with friends and family.
  3. Compassion and empathy because by showing these characteristics to your team and your colleagues at other firms makes you stronger. Understand what motivates your team to come to work every day and what their values are. Check on their welfare and follow up if they’re not ok. Use this knowledge to be a better manager and to be a better lawyer. Cut the lawyers on the other side of a matter some slack when they need it, because you’ll need it one day. Don’t take petty points and keep it civil.

What are the toughest problems and decisions you handle?

As a control freak, the toughest problems for me are always the ones outside my control:

  • meticulously planning your week, only for the schedule to change

  • clients that don’t follow your advice, despite your best efforts, and

  • trying to find the answer to a question that doesn’t have an answer.

But outside of the uncontrollable, the toughest problems and decisions in legal practice can usually be managed by applying points 1, 2 and 3 above. 1 because any problem is easier solved with a team. 2 because some problems just require bloody hard work to solve and 3, because compassion and empathy allow you to see a problem from another’s perspective. Being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes enables better decision making every time.

What have you read lately that made you stop and think?

I was late to the party, but I recently read Leigh Sales book ‘Any Ordinary Day’. I read it before COVID-19 changed our world, but it provided a great insight into the different ways people deal with catastrophic life events. After COVID-19, Sales’ insights are even more important.   

The book emphasised for me the importance of resilience and generally how well people adjust and cope when things go unimaginably bad. What Sales makes clear though is that although this is true, the ways people cope with trauma and significant life events are many and varied. Just because a strategy works for you, doesn’t mean it will work for your friend, your co-worker or your family member.

The book was also instructive for professional reasons, particularly given the prominence of trauma in the work I do.  

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