Top tier law firm sued over COVID pay cut
A Brisbane law firm headquartered in one of the city's most desirable buildings has been accused of lying to a glamorous paralegal to unlawfully slash her pay during the pandemic for fear she would be sacked.
AJ and Co has been sued by Carly Ann Frances Bullock, 25, from Wooloowin, who claims in her Federal Court lawsuit that the firm and its founder lied to her when she was told all the firm's staff were taking a 20pc pay cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to "preserve the viability of the business".
She accuses AJ and Co Lawyers Pty Ltd, and its founder Andrew Johnson of "unconscionable conduct" for unfairly taking advantage of her by using his superior bargaining power to influence her to agree to the pay cut from $75,000 a year to $60,000 in April.
She alleges Mr Johnson knew that the law firm partnership could not lawfully force her to sign the pay reduction letter without her agreeing and argues she "felt she had no choice but to sign the 31 March 2020 pay reduction letter or her employment would be terminated" and she was "unable... to make a rational judgment to protect her own interests".
Ms Bullock alleges one of her bosses, corporate advisory partner Jonathan Whybird told her in a phone call on April 2 that Mr Johnson "is on a war path of firing people at the moment so I would do yourself a favour now and sign the letter".
"I just got a call from Andrew (Johnson) who is beyond pissed. I have had him this pissed only on one or two occasions," Mr Whybird is alleged to have told Ms Bullock.
She states in her court claim that Mr Johnson lied when he told her: "The pay cuts are not up for discussion. Everyone has to take a pay cut" because on April 6 lawyer Thomas Allan successfully negotiated with Johnson not to take a 20 per cent reduction to his salary and to retain his $75,000 salary.
Mr Allan has since left the firm which touts itself on its website as a "commercially focused alternative to top-tier professional services firms" and is based out of the blue-chip Waterfront Place building on Eagle St in Brisbane's CBD.
It's high profile former clients including coal miner Adani, now named Bravus.
She also claims that fellow paralegals Telsa Andersen and Carla Chiraldelli "did not have their hourly pay rates reduced" and instead the company agreed to allow them to take a day each week as a rostered day off.
Ms Bullock alleges that when he pay was slashed during the pandemic her workload increased as staff cuts left the firm understaffed.
Several staff were laid off on March 27, the claim states.
The March pay reduction letter stated the cut was to "preserve the viability of the business" and "may assist in lowering the prospect of further redundancies being required by the firm in the future".
"The firm asks that you kindly consent to this reduction in your remuneration" the March letter states.
Bullock began as a personal assistant and paralegal at the firm in September 2018 on a $75,000 salary and left the firm on July 10.
She has sued the firm as well as Mr Johnston, chief financial officer Kathryn Sinclair, business operations manager Rebecca Mync and corporate advisory partner Jonathan Whybird claiming serious breaches of the Fair Work Act.
She alleges in May Ms Sinclair falsely told her that the "firm doesn't have the cashflow right now" to reinstate regular wages, when in fact Jobkeeper payments had boosted the firm's cash flow.
She alleges that after the April pay cut, in May her pay increased slightly to $65,702, then in July she was offered a cash bonus based on how many overdue legal fees she was able to collect from tardy clients, but she claims the targets were set too high.
No defence has been filed and AJ and Co's staff did not respond to The Courier-Mail's requests for comment.
The case is due in court on February 8.
Originally published as Top tier law firm sued over COVID pay cut