Colleen Cleary is the founder of CC Solicitors, a specialist employment and partnership law firm based in Dublin, Ireland and leads a partner-led team to provide commercially focused advice to clients. Colleen is also qualified in England and Wales and previously practised in the City of London.
What advantages accompany practising labour and employment law in a boutique firm?
Apart from having the luxury of being able to become a real expert in one area of law, you are surrounded by colleagues who have the same interest and passion for employment law as you. Employment law is unique in that while the legislation and case law is complex, it is also very practical in its application. You are also making real-time decisions, so it is very fast-paced and the advantage of being able to discuss a strategy with specialist colleagues in a practice is invaluable.
What has been the impact of remote working on business' approach to employee wellbeing?
Covid is one of the great disruptors and has forced a huge shift in the workplace. Where workers can work remotely this has generally been embraced in Ireland. The employer has an obligation to provide a safe place of work, which now extends to the home of an employee. Business leaders need tools and know how to lead and manage teams remotely. However, in reality, many leaders may not have got to grips with this yet. The ongoing nature of the pandemic means that the return to hybrid working has only recently got underway. The Right to Request Remote Working Bill 2022 indicates that remote and blended working will be here to stay in Ireland and remain part of working life beyond the pandemic.
How are/can businesses addressing any productivity issues caused by covid-19? Is this creating any legal issues?
In reality, it does seem that the pandemic has demonstrated that employees can work effectively remotely without a detrimental impact on their output. Many employees do conversely find that they work harder when working remotely. In Ireland, the Right to Disconnect as a code of practice was introduced in 2021, which is timely as it interacts with remote working. Employers by compelling employees to work beyond contracted or with usual business hours can run the risk of exposing themselves to a legal claim. This can happen where an employee works for an international company and there is a significant time difference. There is no doubt the lines are less clear when an employee works remotely and there may be expectations that an employee be available beyond their contracted hours.
Studies suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has already had a disproportionate impact on women's careers. How can this be addressed by employers, and are they taking steps to address this?
This is worrying and there is no doubt a gender divide is emerging where more women are opting to remote work where there is an option to return to the workplace. Ireland has a 14.4 per cent gender pay gap and we can't afford to go backwards. Employers should ensure their career development and promotion criteria are gender neutralised to ensure that less visibility or remote working does not impact a person's progression. They should also apply a gender lens to their arrangements for a return to the workplace to ensure that it is balanced and reflects the usual diversity of the workforce.
Do you expect to see more covid-19 related lawsuits against employers from employees? Why?
I envisage more health and safety and whistleblowing claims arising around safety in the workplace related directly to Covid, and an increase in claims for work-related stress and constructive dismissal by senior employees who have had to operate and perform during a very challenging period. The impact of the pandemic has resulted in increased profits for some sectors while others have been devastated by ongoing restrictions. Some businesses who have delayed decision-making are now taking major decisions to restructure their business and make redundancies, which always results in an increase in claims.
How will technological innovation and AI impact clients and your legal practice over the next five years?
I would say with the pandemic that we have fully embraced technology that already existed. We conduct most of our meetings and hearings remotely now and we have converted much of our business development to online content. While it is feasible that chat-bots could take preliminary instructions to procure the essential information required to decide whether a client has a case or not, I do not envisage our advice will be replaced by AI. A large part of litigation and employment law advice is tactical and strategic, which combined with the inherent unpredictability of human nature, means that we do not see AI replacing employment advice just yet.
What underrated skills and traits would you encourage up-and-coming lawyers to develop?
Develop strong and good relationships with your colleagues that you work with and deal with professionally – it is a long career and people that you meet on the way up will be there later possibly as a source of work, job opportunity, a counsellor, or just a good friendship – it definitely comes back to you in a very positive way.