Folklaw wonders whether an “absurdist” tale about a lawyer who has a panic attack while working in a 1200-storey, glass-made office tower is really that removed from reality.
Civility Place is a short story written by ex-corporate lawyer JYL (Julie) Koh (pictured). Around two-thirds of the way through, the central protagonist, Rao Lin Chin, asks himself: “Why are you panicking? You still don’t know”.
By then, however, the reader might have a pretty good idea...
The (extremely funny) story in the 2014 edition of The Sleepers Almanac, published this month (April), canvasses issues of overriding concern to corporate lawyers – and looming among these are the pressures induced by billable hours.
“I think high billable hour targets are linked directly to mental health issues,” Koh told Folklaw.
“As a junior it’s hard to build up billable time. Every six minutes you need to spend more time recording exactly what it is that you’ve done in those six minutes – that always seemed to me to be a bit absurd in itself.”
Koh reflected on her own experience of the billable hour while working as a corporate lawyer at Allens. At an internal event to welcome summer clerks, Koh found herself in a circle with the Chief Executive Partner and the newbies, and the chief asked her to chat about how much she was enjoying her job.
“I said, ‘It’s great, I have a laugh every six minutes’," she said.
"That was the first thought that popped into my head and, unfortunately, it was probably the most honest one.”
Not good enough
Work-life balance – or the lack of it – is another underlying theme of Civility Place. When the managing partner in the story realises Rao Lin Chin is in meltdown, he sends him home for the day, saying, “You can log on remotely, can’t you. That way you can meet your deadlines AND get some rest.”
Koh commented: “I certainly think there is a disconnect between the official commitment of firms to work-life balance and mental health and how that works in practice.
“There’s financial pressure on firms themselves, and to be able to give staff leeway and flexibility in terms of hours is a difficult thing; but if that’s the case, it seems absurd to pay lip service to that idea.”
A Sydneysider, Koh left corporate law altogether in 2011 and took a job as a “lollipop lady”. These days she’s a tender writer for non-government organisations (NGOs).
Koh is also currently writing a novella, and two collections of short stories that may end up becoming a novel.
But, Folklaw asked, will she ever return to corporate law?
“Probably not, but the reason is not the work practices I mentioned in the story," said Koh.
“While working as a lawyer [I had] a real yearning to regain the creative headspace I had as kid.
“Although the path I have chosen is stressful in terms of financial security, I do feel more satisfaction in the sort of work I do now.”
Koh emphasises that Civility Place is an absurdist story, not just about corporate law firms but corporate environments in general.
Photo by: Hugh Stewart