Withers’ Ann Wicks on building a California practice and working at an international level
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San Francisco
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

Earlier this month, international firm Withers added Ann Wicks as a new partner to its San Francisco office. A former shareholder at Littler Mendelson for 11 years before joining Cooley Godward as a special counsel in 2004, Wicks’ return to Big Law sees her tasked with building Withers’ new west coast employment practice.

A highly sought-after advisor across San Francisco’s business and tech communities, Wicks has spent the last 16 years running her own successful employment law practice. As she explains, her decision to move to an international firm was not “a decision I’ve taken lightly”.

“My practice was getting to the point where I was referring a lot of work elsewhere and I needed more hands to help with employment issues. I was either going to have to expand by hiring other attorneys, or I was going to have to join an established firm to service the work I already had.”

Increasing interest among her existing client base for international services across the fields of tax, real estate, and family law, among other areas, and the opportunity to work closely with the founders practice group convinced her that Withers – where she was already collaborating as a consultant – was her ideal new home.

“Withers is a really good fit for my practice. It’s what my clients need, as well as being an opportunity to develop new business and start working on a more international level. My new colleagues are fantastic; really smart, really engaged, and have pushed me in ways I hadn’t been pushed in a while. It’s a tremendous opportunity for collaboration,” she explains.

“The firm can provide a lot of bespoke legal services, where we can customise and put together a team to handle a lot of different aspects of what a client needs and work with them creatively to help with whatever issues they’re facing. That, to me, is very appealing.”

Plans to expand Withers’ employment practice have already begun following Wicks’ hire of an employment associate. However, given current client demand, Wicks foresees more hires on the horizon within the next six months: “Ultimately, I see us building the employment practice on the west coast out to probably five or more attorneys within the next two to three years. There’s just a lot of work to be done.”

There are certain industries which lag behind others in terms of addressing or being aware of issues that impact women or minorities

With expertise in advising executives and companies on employment law issues, conducting internal investigations in the areas of employee misconduct, discrimination, and sexual harassment, counselling on wage and hour issues, and handling employment litigation for plaintiffs and defendants, Wicks describes her practice as “unusual” because she works with companies and individuals alike.

Like most other practitioners around the globe, however, Wicks has also been kept busy over recent months by a host of covid-related employment issues, as well as assisting international companies looking to expand into California. “I see a tremendous opportunity for that pipeline of international work in addition to a lot of the more traditional work that I do,” she says.

Among her more traditional work, Wicks has noticed a “steady stream” of senior executives moving to pastures new as a result of employers mandating a return to the office – further evidence of the so-called “Great Resignation” and its impact on businesses that have, arguably, pushed too hard, too quickly for a return to normal working conditions.

“You are seeing an exodus of talent because employees have enjoyed the freedom of working from home or a hybrid arrangement, while employers are being more rigid about having to be in the office and are unwilling to be more flexible in their arrangement,” she says.

“You’re also seeing the employees who were, for lack of a better term, ‘loyal’ to their employer, and who worked hard during the pandemic, but who aren’t being rewarded with the same compensation or opportunities new hires are being given, and, understandably, they’re leaving. They’re asking, ‘Why aren’t you rewarding the people that helped you get through this instead of just raising salaries to fix your staff shortage. You have to attend to both issues’.”

Having worked extensively with employers across various industries throughout her career, Wicks predicts more employers will soon face a “reckoning” related to allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination.

“There are certain industries which lag behind others in terms of addressing or being aware of issues that impact women or minorities,” she says. “We are starting to see those industries called out more frequently by the press and the public. It’s a trend that’s going to continue as we become less and less tolerant of inappropriate behaviour and as we recognise the long-term impacts that has had on people psychologically.

“Before the #MeToo movement there would have been an internal investigation and disciplinary action, but you didn’t always see swift retribution and serious consequences for somebody who engaged in harassment. It’s pretty common now, if there’s a finding of harassment, for that person to be terminated. You’re even starting to see criminal assault and battery charges brought against harassers, which is something you rarely saw five or ten years ago unless there was a serious sexual assault.”

Looking ahead, Wicks believes a big challenge for HR teams will be worker “resilience” and staying in tune with employees’ changing needs. “The isolation and pressure as a result of the pandemic can really wear on employees. We’re becoming a lot more cognisant of mental health and how that isolation and pressure can impact employees, not just their performance, but their participation in the workplace. I think being sensitive and aware of those issues, and making sure employees get time off when they need it, is going to be important.”