JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

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

Thursday, September 21, 2006

the power of sex

the first great moment in my legal career was jumping naked out of a cake at the sixtieth birthday of a well-respected barrister.

well… it could have been… three months into my articles, the opportunity was offered to me at one of the many alcoholic Christmas functions. I laughed loudly along with all the others at the table, and politely declined.

but several questions lingered on long after the event. was this harassment? and if so, to what extent had I been a co-conspirator in inducing or encouraging this kind of conduct?

I had been talking about my amateur acting career – not unusual, as many lawyers like a bit of drama on the side – and in particular I was discussing a show I had done several years earlier which had required full frontal nudity. I was commenting on the sensation of exposing oneself to strangers and friends – potentially provocative words? – but I cannot recall at what point the conversation diverted into a proposed performance at the sexagenarian’s party.

and why be upset? it was, after all, merely words, words, words, the kind of thing one must expect from such old men because they’re from a different generation and they don’t know any better – right? besides which, I would have hated to be labelled as humourless and uptight…

and when it comes down to it, I am as aware as anyone that sexuality can be a powerful weapon for many women – particularly in a male-dominated world like the law.

an example: male members of a client corporation recently confessed that they would willingly make up legal problems just so they could obtain legal advice from one of their other panel law firms, whose assets happened to include a six-foot barbie doll. while I would need considerable stretching and enlargement to provide this kind of added service to my clients, clearly simply being physically (sexually) attractive can be a bonus, and is something that can be used to a woman's advantage much more readily than a man's.

however, my word of warning is that this kind of sexual power is a weapon that is liable to blow up in your face at any time, as it can attract the wrong, as well as the right kind of attention. and neither the law, nor the legal fraternity, are always going to be there to get your back.

sexual harassment always comes down to drawing a line. if my boss tells me I look attractive, is that OK? what if he says this while patting me on the arse? what if the words he uses are “extremely f***able”?

the last is sadly a real world example. the defence raised by the partner to the ensuing claim for sexual harrassment was that the comment (although denied, of course!) had been made in the context of an end of financial year party, and the girl in question had been dressed provocatively in fancy dress (at the request of the partners) and clearly enjoying herself – in fact, photos of her outfit were submitted to the equal opportunity commission of victoria (EOCV), presumably as proof that she was “asking for it”.

I am told that this kind of antiquated view is relatively common in the defence of sexual harassment claims, and I guess it should come as no surprise that it has particular strength in the legal community (or, at least, that lawyers had no qualms in raising it).

but perhaps what was most disturbing is that the EOCV dismissed our young comrade’s sexual harassment claim without reason – clearly having taken the view either that (a) she had been untruthful about the comment, or (b) she had indeed been "asking for it" and therefore the conduct was not unwelcome sexual conduct. when requested to comment on the decision, the relevant persons in the commission were consistently “unavailable”.

I was recently offered another role involving full frontal nudity - but this time I turned it down. after all, you just never know who might be watching…and what kind of judgments might be made about you further down the track.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

You'll never work alone

At many places of work, employees will offset the risk of burn out by taking "mental health days" - ie. sickies. At law firms, however, junior lawyers are expected to be on deck, servicing clients and running up those billable units, come hell or high water. Usually hell.

The simple question implicitly posed to junior lawyers is "If you take a sick day on those random days when you're actually sick, how is the work going to get done?" There are, after all, people depending on you and unscheduled sick days do not allow for handover memos or extensions of deadlines and that's... well... that's just unprofessional.

Surely, though, in extreme cases, junior lawyers can be excused from work. Right?

Well, let's consider two examples from the past few days.

Example one.

On Sunday, several large law firms engaged in battle - on the rugby field - at the inter-firm Flett Cup. In the hurly-burly of the repeated collision of bodies built to sit behind desks, two individuals from one particular firm each managed to fracture a wrist.

One JLU member forwarded to us the match report that was sent around that particular firm the following day. Matter-of-factly, the match report concluded: "Of the two injured players, both John and Howard were at work today, with John having been operated on overnight. We wish both the very best for their respective recoveries".*

We wish them the best for their respective recoveries... as long as they front up for work?? I mean, sure, they can still use a dictaphone, right?

Dude, they broke their wrists. One had an operation only a few hours before. And they're turning up to work? This goes beyond admirable dedication and arrives at raving lunacy.

Example two.

This morning news flashed around the globe of the military coup (is there any other kind?) in Thailand. Two things went on as normal: tourists continued to drink uninterrupted at seedy local bars and expat lawyers turned up to work to push papers around.

The mentality of law firms, as comrades would well know, is that absolutely nothing could possibly be as important as pushing papers around. The serious impression imparted on junior lawyers is that the world will stop turning if we fail to show up and push said papers around our desks.

Part of the reason for this is that, if lawyers aren't convinced that what we're doing is of utmost importance, it is hard to convince clients of that fact. Allowing clients the impression that they could largely do without us is the equivalent of suggesting to them that the emperor (or in the case of Thailand, his Majesty the King) may be strolling around stark naked.

In order, therefore, to reinforce the sense of how crucial we are to the world's continued existence, lawyers are expected to show up in rain, hail or shine (be that acid rain, hail of gunfire or black eye shiner).

And so it was this morning in the Bangkok office of one Australian firm, which proudly advised that, despite the military-decreed public holiday, its lawyers had run the gauntlet, reported for work and were pleased to be ready to accept clients' instructions, should they be forthcoming.

There's something wrong with a culture like that. It is a culture that makes us at the JLU sick. Sick enough to take the day off. The work can wait.


* Names changed for privacy purposes.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Crikey!

Influential media source crikey.com.au cited the JLU's last post (on morale) in the "Blogwatch" section of its daily missive earlier today.

Crikey was described in The Latham Diaries as "the most popular website in Parliament House", suggesting that the JLU now has the ear of those who matter. (Or at least those who legislate.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Anyone remember morale?

Morale is not the name of the immigrant who comes around and cleans your office at 8pm when you're still at work trying to finish something off. No, it's a long-forgotten concept whereby individuals feel valued as successful members of a team or collaboration. Not that today's generation of junior lawyers could be expected to know.

In the stressed, time poor environment of the modern law firm, the absence of pats on the back for a job well done (or the hours dedicated and personal life sacrificed) are but the tip of the morale-busting iceberg.

For the junior lawyers of the 21st century, law firms are cold, sterile, mean places. But it wasn't always so.

There once existed the era of the boozy Friday lunch, where the work could wait until mañana (and that didn't mean Saturday) and value was given to client schmoozing and group bonding.

Unfortunately, that era has passed.

Much of the reason for this is that the old-fashioned partners, who recognised that monthly billings are not the be-all and end-all, have been pushed out in the name of efficiency, as the new breed of greedy, ambitious partners strive for ever-greater earnings.

Sadly, the recent trend has been for the true characters - partners who tended to drink too much, tell bawdy jokes and never touch a keyboard - to be forced to unload their equity. The firms they once built, meanwhile, have become national, soulless monoliths in the hands of their successors, who insist that no profit is ever enough.

The upshot of this for the junior lawyer is that every benefit, every ounce of law firm generosity that once existed is now seen as budget waste and is progressively stripped away.

Those boozy Friday lunches have long become a myth descended from the '80s. Nowadays, not only are junior lawyers expected to zip back to work from firm lunches by 2pm - but they're also expected to pay their own way.

Earlier in my career, at a farewell lunch for a colleague about to begin maternity leave, I ordered a steak and assumed it would be on the firm. Once the meal was completed, the partner (annual income: $1m) was handed the bill. He contemplated it, cleared his throat and proceeded to read out what each of us owed. ("Porterhouse: $24.50.")

This is a culture where profits are not wasted on anything that could possibly improve morale. It is a culture where firm "retreats" begin on Friday evenings and end on Sundays, ensuring that no potential billing time is lost. I am unclear why these weekend work events are termed "retreats". Weekends are retreats: retreats from work and from my "firm face" (ie. the need to smile banally at partners I disdain). Why would I want a "retreat" from my weekend?

The culture of law firms has become a culture of cheapness, of cost-cutting and of squeezing lawyers for every last drop of their soul.

Gone are the days of long lunches paid for by the firm. Here, in their place, are lawyers who feel the need to check their Blackberries at the firm Christmas party. If there is one.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The art of drafting

A partner at the firm I work for recommends a form of catharsis whereby, before drafting a letter to a client or another party, you draft the letter you genuinely want to write to them. Then, feeling purged, you delete it and write the letter you need to write.

This same partner, for example, recently punched out a quick client letter in my presence, advising how tremendously pleasurable it was to present said client with an enormous bill each month for doing very little. He signed off the letter "Love and kisses". He then deleted the bulk of the letter and replaced it with a solemn advice on the various steps we were currently taking to continue generating large fees while running on the spot. "Love and kisses", however, inadvertently remained.

It was left to this junior lawyer to quietly replace "Love and kisses" with "Kind regards" before the letter went out.

Despite that incident, your loyal Shop Steward has adopted the approach as best practice. So taken with it am I that I have drafted and redrafted my resignation letter several times. Most recently, I decided to put the whole letter in square brackets and move the opening bracket one word to the right each time something evil happens at the law firm at which I work - until the entire letter is revealed, at which point in time I intend to submit it.

That bracket is creeping ever closer to "Love and kisses".

Perhaps I should have written a longer letter. Or joined a better firm.