JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

Asserting the rights of junior lawyers, who have much more power than they realise.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Partners who put the "ass" in harassment

Shop Steward can only recall having his bum pinched once - and that was by a gay gent wearing sparkles on Halloween in West Hollywood. While initially unnerved, once the perpetrator identified himself with a smile and a wink, Shop Steward quickly found himself flattered. After all, gay men have taste and style (even if they wear sparkles).

The issue of harassment - sexual, verbal or physical - in the workplace, however, is a serious matter in any industry and lawyers, who should know better, often don't. This is especially true (in both respects) in the case of partners. So used, are partners, to being treated with deity-like deference that many, being overstressed, overworked and overpaid, take out their pent up egotistical stresses on junior lawyers.

Stories abound of articled clerks at whom copies of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) were flung, partners whose wandering hands lingered slightly too long on a certain pretty young lawyer's thigh at the firm Christmas party and so on and so forth. The JLU may, at present, be a somewhat mythical union - but it deplores the abuses of power and position that are all too real in the law firm environment.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Are Lawyers Human?

Q: what do a sperm and a lawyer have in common?

A: they both have a one in three chance of being human

every speck of popular culture has its origins in truth – and no less the “myth” that lawyers are inherently evil.

but rather than just laughing it off, do we ever stop to think about why people say this about lawyers?

like so many other worker bees around me, I slaved (relatively) hard to enter the legal industry with (mostly) good intentions – only to find out that the legal culture was riddled with injustice, cowardice, prejudice, harassment, discrimination and immorality – and that was just in the articles application process!

gather a group of young lawyers together in one place and the unfortunate truth is that you will be hard-pressed to find even one that hasn’t directly experienced some form of bullying, harassment or discrimination. the legal profession is supposed to engender concepts of justice and fairness, but there aren’t many lawyers who wouldn’t laugh at the thought.

lawyers spend their lives manipulating the law, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of them come to believe that the normal rules don’t apply to them – that they are quite literally above the law.

I was unfortunate enough to be bullied and harassed by my former employers to the extent that I had to leave (or, on another view, was dismissed). I was either brave or foolish enough to turn to the law to take on my former employers. the context, the experience and the outcome would need to be a blog topic in and of itself. but needless to say, it was not particularly enjoyable, and I am still of two minds as to whether I would encourage others to follow in my lead.

but what I would encourage is young lawyers breaking the silence that traditionally surrounds these kinds of issues. there is a strong belief that by standing up for yourself you’re actually shooting yourself in the foot. I don’t believe this is true. I sued my former employer and lived to tell the tale. I am still employed as a lawyer, and I intend to remain a lawyer for as long as I can while also remaining sane.

the longer we remain silent, the longer these issues are swept under the carpet. if no complaints are made then the size of problem remains unknown and nothing is done about it. and what’s more, if something is going to be done, it’s up to us to do it.

I cannot agree more with the Steward’s previous post. in my view the LIV don't even manage adequate ethical regulation of the legal profession. the LIV had nothing to offer when I reported my former employers to them. god forbid that a lawyer should send a bill out without providing a 10 page explanation of how the client can refuse to pay it – but it's fine for a partner to routinely bully or harass their employees.

I don’t have a solution, I don’t even really have a master plan. but what I do know is that the more awareness there is of the problem, the harder it will be for the perpetrators to get away with it.

one idea I have had is to collate the stories and experiences of young lawyers - both good and bad. I am hoping that common threads will appear and potential solutions can be found.

so I invite people to either write to me or post a comment on the site about their experiences working in the law - and maybe together we can work towards a better profession!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The JLU and the LIV

The LIV does not represent lawyers -- it regulates them.

The Law Institute of Victoria and its counterpart bodies in other states are not concerned with lawyers' interests but, rather, have have fashioned themselves as regulators, existing to issue practising certificates, monitor compliance with token CPD (continuing professional development) requirements and generally ensure things run as they always have.

As such, the LIV is, in fact, a key plank of the legal establishment and is not interested in the genuine concerns of lawyers or the issues they face on a daily basis.

Where, for example, is the LIV on the systemic overwork of lawyers? What is the LIV doing about the glass ceiling that leaves lawyers with a choice between seeing their children and career progression? How is the LIV addressing a documented lack of job satisfaction, leading lawyers to abandon the profession in droves? Why isn't the LIV standing up for its members and working to guarantee improved conditions in the legal industry?

That some lawyers mistakenly perceive the LIV to be a representative body is evidence of a disturbing false consciousness. When combined with the absence - until now - of a genuine representative body, this becomes all the more insidious.

The JLU recognises that it is junior lawyers who possess the least bargaining power and who are most likely to find themselves exploited, even if they have been inured to believing that it's just the "nature of the industry". Where the LIV fails lawyers, the JLU will stand up for them.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Debunking the "take it or leave it" myth

A lot of the posts thus far in the JLU's existence have railed angrily against the oppression of the junior lawyer in private practice, the injustices in the system and the culture of fear and pressure that pervades Collins St, George St /Martin Place, etc.

It would be fair, then, to ask the obvious question: If you resent working in a law firm so much, and feel it amounts to virtual slavery, why would you remain in private practice?

After all, one might add, there are a myriad of other options open to the junior lawyer: Go in-house. Go work in the public sector and enjoy flexi-time. Go live on a commune. Go do something - anything - that doesn't involve the rigours of private practice you seem to despise.

The response to this is two-fold.

Firstly, working at a law firm is not all doom and gloom. Much of it may well be - but it also obviously has many benefits. But two of these benefits are:

(i) the occasional mental challenge posed by legal work; and
(ii) being paid above the average wage of someone with the equivalent experience in another field.

Occasionally, and depending on one's employer, a feeling of doing good for someone or society generally may also arise. (This is rare.)

Despite these benefits, the JLU would serve no purpose if it acted primarily as a cheer squad for the legal industry. (What, with a range of awards and self-aggrandising hype, the industry performs this role well enough itself without the assistance of the JLU.)

Secondly, the "take it or leave it" argument doesn't wash. Employment laws generally would be redundant if this constituted a valid argument against unsatisfactory working conditions or environments. Consider some logical extrapolations - both in the legal industry and elsewhere:
  • "This is our unsafe workplace. If you don't like it, you can find a job elsewhere."
  • "We've decided to reduce annual leave to two weeks per year. Other employers have done the same. Take it or leave it."
If you argue that working obscenely long hours is just the industry norm and, if you don't like it, you should do something else, you're telling lawyers to shut up and accept what stonemasons, coal miners and manufacturing workers rejected over a hundred years ago.

The 8 hour day, which generations before us fought so hard to enshrine as a basic standard - and which has been respected for 150 years - goes out the window, as well as minimum wages, sick/annual/long service leave and other basic rights that have accrued over time.

Simple supply and demand is not the solution to labour issues generally, nor should it be in the legal industry. Rather, certain lines need to be drawn in the sand and, in the case of the plight of junior lawyers, the JLU exists to agitate on the issues that are relevant to its members.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Profits and work/life balance not incompatible

BP is a company that makes a profit of over one million pounds per hour.

You'd imagine, then, that such a profitable company, mindful of its responsibility to its shareholders, would have achieved this sort of success by squeezing every ounce of "productivity" out of its employees.

It is not unusual, after all, for emails containing an exhortation to lawyers to "Bill, bill, bill!" to be circulated around certain large law firms by certain Managing Partners. Last Friday, for example, at one large national law firm, a JLU member reported receiving no fewer than thirteen emails reminding him to enter as much time as possible into Keystone in order to ensure as much money as possible was charged to clients prior to the end of the financial year. This, coincidentally, was the very same law firm that had, only two days earlier, failed to increase the salary bands of its junior lawyers.

It would seem a fairly obvious equation: the more time firms can make their lawyers work, the more time is billed to the client and the more money the firms - and, by extrapolation, the partners - make. It therefore comes as somewhat of a shock to discover that BP makes over a million pounds an hour by strictly enforcing a policy of work/life balance among its employees, insisting, in an internal BP policy document leaked to the JLU, that employees:
  • "make quality time for family and friends";
  • "leave work at a reasonable time regularly";
  • "keep Saturday and Sunday as work free days";
  • "work from home periodically";
  • "take some time off in lieu and spend it with your family" if "you work long hours on a project or task"; and even
  • "leave work at 4pm on children and partner's birthdays".
Attached to this statement of suggestions for ensuring work/life balance is a "Home / Work / Life Personal Assessment". This questionnaire rates employees' work/life balance and imposes penalty points for such behaviour as weekend work, being in the office after 6pm and eating lunch in the office.

If a company such as BP, which boasts the second-best bottom line in the world, can get serious on its employees' work/life balance, why can't the law firms which service it?