JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

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

Monday, November 13, 2006

The charm defensive - part 2

The big firms proudly make a practice of hiring graduates they consider to be well-rounded and interesting. Sure, they must have a solid academic record. But, it is stressed, they must also have a breadth of life experiences, a variety of community or extra-curricular hobbies and they must be personable and perform well in an interview.

Then they arrive and are put in a small room with no windows and thousands of documents and are expected to spend 14 hours a day answering two questions: Privileged? Relevant?

After inflicting this mind-numbing torture on its bright young things, firms have the gall to tell their junior lawyers that the firm must always come first, that it must be the most important thing in their lives. They must abandon any outside interests - and cease being well-rounded.

God knows why the big law firms hire such interesting and creative law graduates - the best, brightest and most talented - if they intend to treat them like document drones. Perhaps it's to make sure their competitors don't get them.

Earlier this year, I was put on a matter that the senior legal support guy described as having a "100% mortality rate". Everyone who worked on it, he told me, "has either left the department, quit the firm or had a mental breakdown." Apparently there was a fairly even split in outcomes between the three categories.(1)

And so lawyers (like me) leave. They leave the big firms and they leave the profession.

On the whole, firms shrug their shoulders and call it the "natural attrition rate". The biggest firms take take 50+ graduates/ACs a year in each of their Sydney and Melbourne offices and simply expect to lose them over time. They factor this into the number they hire.

Time and time again, they talk about the most important asset of the firm - the clients. They talk about how the clients are to be treated as "God", that clients' needs must always come first.

However, there are two things without which a big firm would not exist, without which it could not function: its clients and its lawyers.

And so, with the constant stream of lawyers leaving big firms turning, in recent times, into a veritable flood, the firms have become increasingly desperate. Not to retain their lawyers, mind you, but rather to poach them from elsewhere.

I am reliably informed that one top-tier firm recently upped what it calls its "star search" reward (from what I am less reliably informed was previously the choice of a packet of chips, a weekend away for one in a Warrnambool motel or a $50 Coles Myer voucher) to a cool $10,000 for the recruitment of a suitable employee who makes it through the probationary period.

It makes you wonder: wouldn't it make more sense for the firms to keep the lawyers they spend so much time and effort hiring in the first place than to have to plug holes by pinching lawyers from other firms?

So why doesn't anyone ask "Is there anything we can do to make you stay?" before you hand in your resignation?

Privileged? No. Relevant? Yes.

(1) I, incidentally, managed to perform a Houdini-like escape from the matter by conflicting myself out of it - but that's another story for another time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post, Shop Steward. And a courageous decision.

My question to you is: are they really haemorrhaging young lawyers? Because working in a law firm seemed like a ridiculous proposition to me 6 years ago, but still everyone else was desperate for the foot in the door. What is going on? Are we just being precious?

17 November, 2006 22:33  
Blogger Shop Steward said...

Thanks very much.

There is no doubt that there is significant turnover of lawyers, particularly at large firms. Almost every junior lawyer I know has one eye on other options and is furtively making enquiries.

Some people stay longer than others in order to gain a certain level of experience but, according to a statistic recently quoted to me by a colleague, no more than 25% of lawyers remain in the profession after 5 years of practice. Looking around the decimated cohort of graduates I started with, that doesn't seem all that far-fetched to me.

11 December, 2006 14:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess this is why the top US firms in the States have a whole class of 'para-legals' to do the kind of drone-work you describe. Big cases necessarily have a lot of related drone-work - the bigger the case, the more that type of work. But it is, as you point out, absurd to put top law grads to such tasks if you want to keep them. Maybe the Australian firms will learn that one day. A lot of the crap in Australian lawfirms needs to be devolved to a semi-professional underclass.

27 December, 2006 13:56  

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