The 5.30 pm rocket: Law firms and the outdated culture of keeping you chained to the office desk
The old boss: The King is dead, long live the King
Here we go! The other day, I logged off from work just before 5.30 pm; for the first time in a long time. I'm such a rebel.
In the distant past when we used to work in offices, one of my partners used to call people who left work on time "5.30 rockets!". It was accompanied by a disapproving shake of the head. The irony is that he was the laziest git going. But as the managing partner of the office, we had to listen to his rants, laugh at his jokes, and enjoy other kinds of awkward boss stuff. He was forever giving people abuse for slacking off or leaving early. His office was right by the main entrance so he could see people coming and going throughout the day. However, he would often disappear from the office around 4 pm. Hard at work at a high stakes contractual negotiation meeting no doubt (although his calendar would be none the wiser). If he wasn't such a duplicitous dick about timekeeping, I would have called him a #BloodyLegend! for skiving off early occasionally.
Amusingly, Karma is an unforgiving mistress. That managing partner finally got the sack for basically being lazy. He was not a team player and pissed off the higher-ups at the firm. He was also on shaky ground as soon as his client billings dipped. In most law firms, you can generally get away with being a fairly objectional partner if your billings are solid. However, what goes up, must come done. As soon as you show signs of weakness, the long knives come out. You will find yourself cold, alone and on the pavement, cardboard box in-hand and vanish quicker than Vanilla Ice's music career.
But there is a wider issue at play. Most law firms want to see “bums on seats” well into the evening. They want their lawyers chained to their office desks for hours on end. In my view, this is completely misguided and often counterproductive. I have heard tales of associates at certain firms, leaving for the day with subterfuge that would give James Bond a run for his money. From the associates who would leave their PC on, their jacket on the chair or briefcase by the desk to create the illusion that they are still hard at work but have popped out of the office for some air. To the associates who make a point of leaving through the fire escape doors at the back of the office to avoid walking past the senior partners on the way to the lifts. This is probably standard practice in many office environments.
However, this is all-pervasive in law firms. You are expected to work around the clock and to always be available for work. But we are not robots. When the late nights start to rack up is it not always physically possible to be in bright and early the next morning.
Leaked email: bums on seats by 9 am, please!
The problem with demanding people to come in on time in the mornings is that law is no longer a gentile 9 am to 5 pm job. We are not in that kind of world anymore. However, many of those in senior management positions seem to be stuck in the past. In this ever interconnected, always-on world, there are more and more demands on us. If you have been in the office until 2 am on an urgent matter, I would expect that lawyer to be given some slack. What is there to be gained by trying to break people and get them back in at 9 am the next morning? What does that achieve? Who would that benefit? Sadly, many of the so-called people “in-charge” do not ask those fundamental questions. They mainly want to see “bums on seats”. It is a crude evaluation metric and utterly meaningless.
From my experience, lawyers tend to make terrible managers, myself included. You work hard, become a successful lawyer, draft contracts, manage a transaction, negotiate, and close deals. Those are generally introverted tasks requiring high levels of concentration, lateral thinking and long stints of silent focus and analysis. Most of the lawyers I have worked with tend to be socially awkward with less than average interpersonal skills. The few normal ones that remain are good lawyers but none of us have been given the necessary building blocks to become competent managers. Being good at drafting contracts and spotting legal risks for your clients does not translate into having an ability to manage a team or run an office. Yet that seems to be precisely the criterion which senior management consider when promoting partners to positions of responsibility within a law firm.
See the link below to the Legal Cheek website which has the full text of a now-infamous email to staff from a Hogan Lovells (one of the world’s top 10 global law firms) senior partner:
The hapless partner wrote in his diatribe: “We are still experiencing major issues with staff punctuality.”
In his blinkered view, lawyers’ “remuneration takes account of the fact that there will be times when they need to work long hours to meet client deadlines or expectations. Therefore, there will be no automatic right for fee earners to arrive late the day after late working…”
As I pointed out above, this approach is completely unreasonable. It is also out of line with the views of most modern lawyers.
Like most hopeless managers, he also adds a pathetic threat to his maniacal note: “I am usually in by 9 am every day and will be doing my own visual checks…yesterday morning the office looked almost deserted at that time (with apologies to those who were here) which is simply not acceptable.”
Come into the office: It’s perfectly safe … or else
Sadly, this obsession with getting lawyers into the office, come what may, seems to be alive and well in 2020.
In the UK, the Government announced on 22 September 2020 that all office workers should work from home where possible. This measure was implemented with the hope of mitigating the impact of the second wave of the pandemic in the UK.
However, in a leaked email the London office of Sullivan & Cromwell (a New York headquartered top 25 global law firm) gave a clear indication that to work “effectively or efficiently” lawyers were expected back at the office. The firm has not followed the spirit of the Government's guidance by hiding behind nuances. They have argued that they have created a COVID-secure work environment for employees.
A prudent employer would be expected to ensure the safety of their employees. Implementing COVID-safe measures would normally be admirable. However, twisting government guidance, and hiding behind alleged inefficiencies of remote working is a new low point. Even for lawyers.
We need to move away from this 1970s mentality. We do not all need to sit around a table to thrash out ideas whilst smoking, dictating to a secretary, or using a physical filing cabinet to review our matter files. Most firms have great remote working systems, with virtual portals to email, document management, billing, and time recording systems. Provided you have reliable broadband at home, you are golden.
In my view, firms should be taking the opposite approach. As remote working looks here to stay, firms should be supporting employees to enhance their remote working infrastructure. Firms should do more to support employees getting access to fast broadband, home office furniture, or equipment as needed. A small allowance should be applied to home office stationery supplies. My firm only offers employees a “loan” to purchase IT equipment or home office furniture. Whilst this is better than nothing, some employees are reluctant to incur these additional costs. It may be hard to police how funds are spent but, in my book, it is the employer’s responsibility to support employees and ensure they have everything they need to do their job effectively at home and stay safe.
At this rate, with any luck, by 2070, law firms will have caught up with the ways of the world in 2020. Better late than never.