JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

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

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The charm defensive - part 1

I resigned last week.

Under my contract, the firm requires me to give three months' notice and, as I need the money, I agreed to work out the notice period in its entirety. The beauty of this situation, of course, is that the charade is over. I am now effectively dead man working.

Except for serious misconduct (such as the maintenance of this blog on work time), I cannot be fired. That's quite a liberating feeling. Rather than having to pretend I care, that I genuinely would take a bullet for a client, I am free to conduct myself according to my own priorities and sense of reason, not the firm's.

In the period since I submitted my resignation, I have had one moment when a partner sought to impart the usual subtle pressure by suggesting that he was "disappointed" I hadn't seen fit to come in before 8am on a particularly busy morning. I heard him out, said nothing but "Sorry" and shrugged. There was a momentary, glorious flicker of recognition in the partner's eyes that he had lost his intimidatory power.

By resigning, I had completely messed with the existing power dynamic of the relationship. There was no more need to dance the dance.

Earlier, when I informed my responsible partner of my decision to resign, he transformed from a frowning, full-throttle, stormy machine, too busy to waste words on compliments or niceties, to a previously-unseen genial bloke, with all the time in the world to discuss my strengths, interests and future plans.

Then, when I told a more senior partner, who had played a key role in hiring me all those years ago, there was genuine disappointment. "Is there anything we can do to make you stay?" she asked.

This was the perfect opportunity to set out the JLU's manifesto in its entirety: fewer working hours, respect (not just lip service) for work/life balance, a sense that employees are valued and appreciated by the firm, proper mentoring by partners - including a genuine interest in junior lawyers' professional development, proper diversity of work (beyond slaving away endlessly on Project Rectal Exam), etc, etc...

And, of course, it was a chance to get a few extra bucks. Maybe $10K.

Instead, I stoically shook my head. "No," I said. "I've made up my mind."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Accounting for your time... on the loo

The first question that non-lawyer mates (if you've got any left) ask you about time recording is invariably, "If you have to account for every six minutes, how do you account for your time on the toilet?"

They think they're being clever but, in truth, it's a rather mundane question with a pretty obvious answer: "If I'm staring at a spot on the wall above the urinal, thinking about what I have to do when I get back to my desk, it's considering. If I'm doing a number 2, I take reading - so it's reviewing."

Non-lawyers should be minded to wash their hands after handling legal documents. There's no telling how many lawyers have "reviewed" the document you're thumbing through.

My clients should, at least, take some comfort in the fact that I restrict my reviewing to the good bathroom. By the "good bathroom", I mean the bathroom on the reception floor, which has all the client meeting rooms. There are no lawyers' offices on this floor and, consequently, no lawyers who frequent this bathroom. Except for me.

When I was a kid, my mum always told me off for using the "guest bathroom", the "guest soap" and the "guest hand towel". Perhaps that's why I take great pleasure these days in taking a dump in the "client bathroom".

That - and the fact that the regular bathrooms on each working floor are crowded, dirty and, unless you walk in within 30 seconds of the timed deodoriser spray doing its thing, unbearably pungent.

The good bathroom is much more peaceful. You can really get some good reviewing done. There's no-one rushing in and out or making noises in the stall next to you that sound like they swallowed a French Horn.

You can also spread out a whole file in the more spacious toilet stalls. Trust me - a Second Further Amended Statement of Claim will wedge nicely above the toilet paper holder.

I don't think any of this is going too far. With the constant pressure on junior lawyers to meet their billing targets, toilet time need not be dead time.

That said, the day someone takes a dictaphone into a toilet stall will be the day there's an undeniable need for a Legal Secretaries' Union.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What are we afraid of?

Better not leave before 6pm. Better not leave before this gets done. Better not tell the partner that you and your (soon to be ex) girlfriend/boyfriend have dinner plans and tickets for a show tonight. Better not stand up for yourself.

Better not? Why not? Why not, comrade?

The greatest magic of law firms is how they manage to compel obedience from their junior lawyers without any defined threat. It is simply a vague pressure: the law firm "culture". That's just the way things are.

But why? What if they aren't? What happens then?

Let's look at the end game. What are the carrots and sticks?


In most Australian law firms, in contrast to US firms, bonuses (whether discretionary or based on achieving certain targets) are non-existent. Likewise, salary banding doesn't usually kick in until at least third year, by which time you could've had three good years billing 80 hour months while your mate bills 200 hours a month and walks away with the exact same salary. So forget the financial incentive.


If you genuinely and desperately aspire to climb the greasy pole to senior associateship and partnership, you're not reading this blog. But, in any case, it's roughly five years to senior associateship and five more to partnership. So, at the very least, you can bum around for three, get your act together by the time you get to third year and still cruise into senior associateship by impressing with your new-found enthusiasm and "can do" attitude.

For most JLU members, however, junior lawyerdom is not a stepping stone to greater heights of drudgery and paper shuffling. The majority of junior lawyers flee law firms before promotion to senior associate becomes an issue. So the threat that, somewhere distant down the track, you will be passed over for what is effectively the worst job in the firm - and certainly not one for which you hold any aspiration - is no threat at all.

Disciplinary measures

No lawyer actually knows of any lawyer being fired for poor performance.

Sure, stories abound of how unnamed lawyers have been quietly informed that they are unlikely to progress to senior associate or else have found themselves "managed out" by having their workload dried up. But is that a threat?

Might get boring - but it's not exactly like you're a fast-talking movie cop being taken off the beat and assigned to a desk job (the ultimate movie cop punishment). No, sir. Yours *is* a desk job. And reading the paper certainly beats due diligence. Or you could even start a blog.

References / Reputation

Most law firms inexplicably have a policy of not permitting partners or senior associates to provide departing lawyers with written references. So you can work your rear off for years and years and leave with... well... nothing. Or you can slovenly waltz in and out during daylight hours and leave with... nothing.

In any case, if you want a verbal reference, just make sure you're friendly with a couple of people a year or two above you. Buy them a beer. At least one will make senior associate and will be so flattered when you ask them to act as a referee that they couldn't care less how hard you worked for the slave-driving partner.


In practice, the carrots and sticks are limited. The result is that, for the junior lawyer, there is nothing to be gained by sacrificing your personal life for the firm and there is nothing to be lost by digging your heels in.

So next time you're thinking "I'd better get this done or else...", finish the sentence.

Or else what?

In the meantime, the very vagueness of the "or else" renders junior lawyers complicit in their own subjugation. And we're supposed to be smarter than that.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Top tier salaries revealed!

The long-promised results of the survey of what junior lawyers are paid are presented below.

It was hoped that a table could be produced that outlined the salaries paid by specific firms to lawyers at various levels of seniority. Due, however, to reticence, disinterest or possibly a desire to abide strictly by contractual terms of confidentiality, an inadequate number of responses were received to produce the sort of comprehensive chart that was intended.

Consequently, we present the following figures as a sort of average for top-tier firms for financial year 2006-7. The figures include superannuation - simply because the numbers are rounder - although the JLU objects in principle to the quoting of salaries inclusive of super.

These salary levels also take a few months to kick in. In other words, you may be a second year lawyer as of March in terms of experience but you'll still be on a first year's salary until the following July. (I guess, if you really wanted to, you could discount the salaries by a third of the difference between the salary levels to produce a more accurate figure.)

The final thing to bear in mind is that this survey turned out to be rather Melbourne-centric. Sydneysiders should expect about 10% more, everyone else less.

Now for some numbers...

Law graduates / articled clerks: $53,000

1st year lawyers: $67,500

2nd year lawyers: $79,000

3rd year lawyers (standard discretionary bracket): $90,000

3rd year lawyers (highest discretionary bracket): $97,500

4th year lawyers: $105,000

A smattering of figures received from lawyers at mid-tier firms suggested that you can subtract about 20% for salaries at mid-tier firms.

The JLU hasn't the faintest what junior lawyers at small firms are getting - although we'd be willing to bet our superannuation that you're getting less still.

Please feel free to post your comments, clarifications or condemnation of any of the above.