IT IS NOT every profession that can make multinational companies appear a safe house for the employee. In another instalment of lawyers behaving badly, an anonymous source has come forward to tell his own horror story to Lawyers Weekly.
Reminiscent of the book and film ‘Hell has Harbour Views’, every clichéd shocking story is reaffirmed yet again in one lawyer’s experience in private practice. In an exclusive interview with Lawyers Weekly, he reveals why he left a small Victorian law firm where he was working as a solicitor to join a large multinational company to work in-house.
“I haven’t had hole punches and scissors thrown at me but I have heard of that happening. I have had files thrown back over my desk. I’ve had ‘this is the worst work I’ve ever…’ It’s a horrible profession, it really is,” the anonymous source revealed this week.
Law is far from the glamorous profession you see in ‘LA Law’. “We’re service people — we put out fires for clients, we rescue cats out of trees for clients, we shovel shit for clients. It’s really not that glamorous, other than the fact that you use a pen and paper instead of a shovel,” he said.
He claimed that newspapers and magazines have gone too far in accepting law firms’ policy lines, adding that while “I think you are doing great things by publishing articles on depression and stress”, there is a “dark figure” of the profession not covered in the media.
While some people like private practice, it is not for everybody, he said. “I think overall I do find it easier [in-house]. I have worked in a couple of small firms, though I haven’t worked in all of them. But, I speak to people and you get shared experiences. People say: ‘I had partners yelling at me and screaming at me and getting me from my death bed and blaming me for everything that is wrong in the world’. I don’t get that here and for me that is a definite sign that it’s better here.”
According to Australian Corporate Lawyers Association CEO Peter Turner, this is theme that we hear repeated. He said law firms are finding it “very hard to retain good people”.
“Of course they invest a lot of time and effort and money into training up good people so it’s a big loss to them when young people are not happy with the environment and move out to an internal role in-house or into the government or elsewhere.”
This person’s experience, though, is not one of a kind, said Turner, and is something repeated in stories about many law firms. “There were those comments from Tom Poulton [at Allens Arthur Robinson] in the press. That, I think, reflected an attitude and a work environment that this person has obviously experienced,” Turner said.
In this new role in-house, our source finds the range of work more satisfying, and said he now is able to get more work done. “The range of work I do is just fantastic, just brilliant. So it’s a great move for me. I know a lot of people are doing it, and I am just lucky to be in a great company as well.”
“In fact, I probably do more work here because I don’t hide behind a time sheet, I don’t have to meet a budget. I’m doing eight hours solid and it’s fine. I used to come home and I’d be going through a bottle of wine a night, easily, just to cope.”
But Turner argued that the grass is not necessarily always greener on the other side. “It has got much tougher in-house too, and people are working much longer hours. Work flexibility that was traditionally in-house is much harder to find these days and the demands on in-house counsel are very great. There have been some surveys done of working hours and you will find that the working hours of in-house counsel these days are very similar to the external profession,” he said.
“Many big corporations these days do require an accounting for time. So you don’t necessarily escape that kind of constraint just by moving in-house. Really, it is getting tougher all round for the entire profession,” he said.
Our source argued that “if the profession doesn’t take some responsibility for the way it conducts work and the way it puts pressure on meeting billable hour targets, for example, or budgetary targets, there are huge pressures to boost bills and boost time sheets, and this puts staff in enormous ethical conundrums”.
Though the partners at our source’s firm had left a large law firm, labelling it “too stressful”, they did not rectify or prevent such problems in their own firm. The problems often associated with ‘mega’ firms had now become a condition in an intensified, smaller practice.
When he began to suffer from depression when working in the small firm, he received no support from the partners. The partners, who had left a very large firm and started a new firm on their own, were resentful of large law firms, labelling them too stressful.
“I was desperately unhappy at some points,” he said. When he asked for help after client complaints made about him to the Law Institute of Victoria, he received none. “There was a lack of care and supervision by the partners for these sorts of matters and they treated it all as a big joke, but I was the one who had to front up before the Institute and answer my case and generally look after this sort of thing,” he said.
Partners were not only unsupportive of him, they also turned on each other on occasion. Bullying and harassment was common, he said.
“One of the major cases I worked on before I [resigned] was a Supreme Court file. It came from a commercial client of a commercial partner. When, during discovery, it became apparent that there were issues with interpretation of the documents — who drafted them, who wrote them and ‘why was this done and why was this left out’ — I was instructed by the litigation partner to get in writing from the commercial partner his thoughts and processes and why this happened so we could stitch him up.
“These are people you are sharing your business with and yet you are instructing staff to treat them as the enemy. And the partners had a general disregard for the running of the business, they were often away on holidays or going on trips and leaving a basic shit-fight for everyone else to deal with. This is probably not an uncommon story,” he said.
When he got sick, the source immediately disclosed it to the partners. “I said: ‘look, I’m not well and I need to deal with this’. They were initially supportive.”
Finally, when he had panic attacks, the partners were unsupportive. “I didn’t get much support in terms of ‘you’ll just snap out it’ and ‘I know people who have been there before and they just have this incredible sadness’, and ‘it will be fine’,” he said.
Another opportunity soon came up in a multinational company and he took it. Having been in-house, he has been able to further understand the role of the legal profession. “I have got a lot more work/life balance,” he said.
“It’s much, much easier here. Intellectually, I enjoy being closer to the business and having a bit more involvement and exposure to the commercial decisions that are being made. It makes it easier to understand the lawyer’s role.”
His role in-house has changed his notion of what the legal profession is. “I have immensely professionally benefited from it and also immensely socially and personally benefited from it. You meet heaps of people you otherwise wouldn’t meet, you are not stuck in your ivory tower, you can demystify the legal profession a little bit, make it more approachable.”
A different world: In-house
IN HIS NEW in-house role, having moved from private practice where he suffered from depression, a Lawyers Weekly source is leading a different life.
“I am coping much better with the stress. I am more aware of when I am going to be beset by anxiety or something — I can manage it within this environment,” he said.
While many private law firms have policies that tout flexible work practices, this is often very different in practice, said the source. “I know that there is flexibility within this workplace. If I said I had to come in late, no-one would bat an eyelid. I guess that is the luxury of being in the professional and the executive wing rather than the call centre -- but what can you do?”
In his new role in-house in a multinational company, flexible work practices are a reality. “I believe we are a fairly enlightened company. There is compassionate leave, carers leave, paternal leave as well as maternal leave.
“We have four GMs sick at the moment, but the company is aware that work is tough and that people do suffer effects from it, which is a great contrast.”
While he accepts that some in-house lawyers may not have this experience, “and certainly where I used to work [in private practice], if I called up and said ‘look I’ve got the flu’, that wasn’t good enough”.
He said that his experience in private practice was very much “kill yourself and come in”. But, “people get sick, that is how it goes. We are not machines unfortunately, or fortunately, depending who you ask”.
In his new role in-house, there is respect even in the high levels of the company. “This is not like private practice, where you get files thrown at you with no regard as to whether you can take it on in terms of capacity.”
In his old law firm, partners tried to implement a procedure whereby people could say: “I’m at 80 per cent or 90 per cent or I’m at 140 per cent and blowing gaskets and I can’t do it”. And solicitors were told “don’t take on any other partners’ work if it means your work is going to be put behind”. But he said he used this once and was “absolutely berated” for it: “How dare you say you can’t take on my work — I give you good files, I give you good work.”
• Partners have disregard for their staff and for each other
• Newspapers and magazines have gone too far in accepting law firms’ policy lines
• Lawyers are under too much pressure to boost bills and time sheets, which puts them in enormous ethical conundrums
• The legal profession needs to reconsider billable hour targets or budgetary targets if it wants to encourage people into the profession