Random thoughts on life at law firms
Our most recent posts speak for themselves: both Nico and myself are currently quite absorbed by work and have struggled to find the time to write some sensible and substantive stuff here (we’ll be back to substance next week) nor to attend the various social competition law events taking place these days. [Query: if everyone is partying or writing blogs, who works here??!] . However, the “hecticness” of these past few days has spurred some random thoughts with regard to life at law firms (the fact that for the first time ever I have to alter my summer holiday plans because of work has also contributed to some intense reflection). Here they are, in the hope that they give rise to some debate:
A thorny issue. Some months ago we created a specific category for posts on “life at law firms” which we’ve never properly fed. This is a thorny issue. Lawyers are most often very cautious about expressing their opinions about this in public. I understand why. Anyone who talks/writes about this risks being regarded as either an unbearable and short-sighted workaholic, as a lazy and overly critical traitor to the profession, or as a hypocrit. However, not talking about it except in private conversations may not be the best solution to (a) rebut some often told exaggerations and (b) address some actual problems.
The actual problems. That there is a problem is undeniable. Many brilliant people -and particularly many brilliant women- do not feel attracted to or end up abandoning the life of the practitioner. Is this really unavoidable? I don’t think so. This job should be about identifying and retaining the best lawyers, not just the most ambitious (don’t get me wrong; I believe that ambition or “hunger”, when not alone, is key to a career in law). So, for a start, couldn’t there be more part-time jobs? Some people appreciate the work and don’t necessarily live just to be made partners. As you can see, I have issues with inflexible ”up or out” policies that prevail in most law firms. Tele-work is another area where there’s a lot to be done. A third, and perhaps more important, issue are billable hours (a holy cow in this sector). I have mixed views on this but, in general, I think that lawyers performance should be evaluated by quality, not hours spent at work. In order to do this, perhaps clients should not generally be billed by the hour. There are many other reasonable alternative billing arrangements that depend not on hours but on nature and complexity of the works and, most important, on the degree of accomplishment of the client’s goals. These arrangements could make good lawyers earn more than just hourly rates, and at the same time could contribute to driving bad lawyers out of the market.
An exageration component? There might also be a problem of communication/perception, which depending on the cases may be large, small or inexistent. We lawyers like to think that we’re super-bright, that what we do is super-important and that, therefore, the busier we are the smarter and the more important we are. It’s almost certain that if you ask a competition lawyer “how are you?”, the reply will most certainly be “very busy”. No doubt the reply will almost always be sincere, but don’t we insist on it too much? (bonus based on billable hours may also have something to do with this frequent response).
A matter of perspective. Many people live on the extremes:
- On the one hand, there are those who constantly complain about the profession and seem to believe that life doesn’t get worse than this. In my very personal view, these people fail to realize that we’re absolutely privileged: interesting work, smart guys around us, good salary, most free weekends, decent holidays, we don’t risk our own money on uncertain projects … You know, I grew up surrounded by waiters, cooks, receptionists and business people (who create activity and jobs and risk it all), and I can tell you that they don’t live any better than us, particularly these days (a personal example: my mother works much much more than I do).
- On the other hand there are those who live exclusively for work (which is fine with me) but who also believe that everyone else must do that too (with which I have some problems). I believe that availability and maximum dedication are inherent to a job where you have to do everything in your power to solve a problem, but I also tend to believe that problems are better solved when people have wider horizons.
P.S. Given the above-mentioned holiday change of plans, I’m thinking about spending just a few days in Greece. Any suggestions?
[If anyone wants to go to Spain I can offer a discount at my parent's hotel and, if I'm there, a guided tour too ]