LIFE IN A modern law firm is no laughing matter, commentators agree. Law firms are not doing enough to satisfy their staff — from new entrants to partners — who are unsatisfied and not working to their full potential.
Former managing partner at Freehills in Melbourne, Paul Montgomery, told Lawyers Weekly that unhappiness, although a problem in itself, has more serious ramifications for senior lawyers in particular. Firms can tell when partners are unhappy, and let them go as their productivity is affected, he said.
When coaching has failed to remedy this problem of productivity, resulting from unhappiness and little satisfaction, lawyers will usually be asked to leave, Montgomery revealed.
“They’re not neglecting [the partners], there is coaching going on. Firms recognise they do have this issue of lawyers’ unhappiness facing them, but if coaching doesn’t work then they tend to take that action [of letting them go]. Coaching seems to be quite prevalent and a lot of firms resort to it, but the level of assistance they give runs to that,” he said.
But coaching does not solve the problem, Montgomery suggests, arguing firms should be doing more to remedy the causes. “I would have thought given the extent of [the problem], coaching really is not tackling it, as fixing the symptoms would,” he said.
Lawyers Weekly last week revealed that many partners, particularly in large law firms, feel trapped by their environs, unable to leave their firms for fear of the rumour mill as well as an inevitable drop in income. Former Clayton Utz senior partner Mike Lyons, who left the firm about eight years ago, said he learned during an in-house seminar that 60 per cent of his partners were either unsatisfied or unhappy. He argued there is still an “internal strife” of partners in firms generally, in which they put up with their unhappy working lives for the money.
Lawyers Weekly this week publishes a letter from Clayton Utz chief executive partner David Fagan, who asserts the current emotional health of the firm is a positive one. Although Lyons’ comments about the firm refer to his experience a number of years ago, he told Lawyers Weekly that unhappiness is still an issue in firms, and should be addressed.
This unhappiness is derived from sources including the immense competition with other partners, Lyons argued. One partner once said to him “we are all in partnership but my biggest competitor is sitting in the office next to me”. Also, some fear losing their clients if they go on leave, he said. The long hours also cause stress and result in unhappiness, he added.
In large firms, where the attrition rate is higher than in boutique firms, they should focus increasingly on finding ways to keep their lawyers and make them happy in their workplace, said law lecturer and editor of the Deakin Law Review James McConvill.
McConvill suggested that there are a number of causes of lawyers’ unhappiness. He cited United States psychologist Martin Seligman’s recent paper in the Deakin Law Review, which suggests the attrition rate in law firms is going up and money is not enough to keep young lawyers in their jobs. “Seligman is showing [that firms] are not concentrating on what lawyers do in their day. Firms should look at how lawyers use their time and find ways for [them] to develop their skills,” he said.
People leave their jobs because of “a lack of control, lack of a sense of being part of a team”, said McConvill. “And usually it’s not because a firm can’t provide for them, because the potential satisfaction is there, but it’s not being achieved,” he said.
“In large firms where the attrition rate is high, they could focus on allowing people to exercise their strengths. Some have an interest in research, or dealing with clients, or an organisational role. They could be part of organising committees and projects. [Being able to exercise your strength] flows on to happiness,” he said.
McConvill said there was not enough appreciation of lawyers in many firms. “There is no appreciation of staff as an asset, there is no looking at individuals as part of the firm rather than what they can do for the firm,” he said.
“There is a strong culture of ‘you’re privileged to come here and you are here on our terms. If you don’t like it you can leave’. But if this continues, it’s not good for business,” said McConvill.
Firms need to recognise lawyer retention as a serious issue, he said. “Generally speaking, the reason it is not considered to be such an issue from a business sense is that if one person leaves, there is someone willing to fill their shoes. [Firms] are wasting and not appreciating their major asset. From a business point of view it’s not effective, he said.
“Considering the amount spent in terms of training and building profiles for these partners, for management to say they can move them along is bad business,” McConvill said.
He supported the ideas put forward in Seligman’s paper, abridged in Lawyers Weekly on page 12 this week, which discusses the problem of low decisional attitude and people’s general outlook. Seligman suggests high responsibility at partner level promotes pessimism. Lawyers, particularly at the senior level, focus on risk instead of enjoying what they are doing and really utilising their interests, he writes.