“Are you cold?” – a tale from the trenches

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Back in the mid 1990s, when I was first starting out in this profession we call “law”, I was putting my jacket on to go home. As I recall it was around 8.30 p.m., after what had been a long day. The partner I was working for at the time saw what I was doing and asked me:

“Are you cold?”

In an era when if a partner asked you to jump, you replied “how high?” – I got the message.

I sat down and got back to work.

Fast forward to today’s world

So why does this old war story from the trenches even matter in today’s world?

This story matters because of some press coverage here in Australia following recent investigations, etc, by Australia’s Fair Work Commission (FWC). The upshot of this (as I understand it, and I could be wrong) is that the FWC, rather ironically if you ask me, is looking at the number of hours junior lawyers are working to ensure they are being paid minimum wage.

As is often the case when the business of law model is under attack, the establishment fights back. In recent press coverage here in Australia this has included comments in the following two articles in the Australian Financial Review:

Long hours aren’t just for young lawyers in which John Denton (ex-CEO of Corrs) argues that:

  • lawyers should focus on what they offer clients rather than the time that it takes“,  (NB: not sure how clients being billed by the hour would take this comment), and that
  • the key as a profession should always be that it’s not about the hours, but about what the value you’re creating for your clients“, (absolutely right, but wait: how does this work with time-sheets) and that (the Great Escape)
  • You always have to be available, matters don’t come at orderly times“.

Welcome to the real world, law grads in which John Roskam (an executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Melbourne, Australia – and so far as I can tell has never been a lawyer) basically says that if you don’t like being a hard working law grad or junior lawyer, then nobody is making you do it and go and go join the world of commerce where they work much harder (for the record, in my day it was the dot.com world).

So let’s put this into a little context for a second:

  • At the time of my little Are you cold? episode I worked for a Magic Circle firm and my annual billable target was 1,400 hours (1996).
  • The current version of Yale’s The Truth About The Billable Hour (which is from 2002) has it saying US firms typically ask junior lawyers to bill between 1,700 and 2,300 hours a year.
  • The Australian Financial Review recently (2018 from memory) had this number at 1,600 hours in its Partnership Review.

All of which has me wanting to say:

  • to Mr Roskam – we are not asking these kids to work as hard as we did. What we’re actually asking them to do is to work harder.  In some extreme cases, 300% harder! and
  • to Mr Denton – if billable hours really aren’t that important, and if it is all about the client, why do we even bother setting hourly billable targets that – and this is important – junior lawyers have no control over meeting and are almost completely at the mercy of their partner, consultant, special counsel, senior associate, associate, lawyer who also need to meet their annual billable targets?

And I’ll leave you with this: In case you are left wondering, it has been a long held view of mine that billable hour targets are unhealthy  and a really crappy way of working out law firm revenue budgets (side joke for the nerdy, every time someone leaves your team you have to budget re-forecast!).

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