Work to live

It’s been a while since my last post. However, recently my hours have been fairly depressing and I believe this is a necessary concern that I need to address.

When you finish law school, and go into your interview for your first job as a graduate, you will hear a lot of emphasis on how your firm is different because they genuinely care about their employees and have an excellent work life balance and associated well being culture. This, I’m afraid, is an outright lie.

Any work/life balance in commercial law firms is about balancing non work commitments, with work, within a work environment. For instance, you might spend 40 minutes at the gym on the ground level and head back up to work. You’ll be exercising with your work mates. There may be drinks or a social outing, and this will be with work mates. Your weekend will be work in the office with other work mates. Frankly, your life is consumed by your job and your colleagues become your circle of friends.

This, in my opinion, is unhealthy and depressing. Whilst the opportunity for you to strike a perfect balance is very hard, you should nonetheless actively work towards this. There are several ways I do this:

  • I reduce my attendance at firm outings or social events – I won’t go for drinks the majority of times; I will not work out with colleagues at all; I will not attend social events with colleagues, or meet colleagues during my weekend; if your firm gives you a Blackberry – then do not give your personal mobile number to colleagues but use your Blackberry number.
  • Socialise with other people – when you were at uni, did you have friends in Engineering, Medicine, Science, Arts etc? Do you have siblings you’re close to? Do you have friends who don’t work in commercial firms? Are any of your friends criminal lawyers, or family lawyers or In House? These are the people you need to reconnect with and invest time in building these relationships.
  • Leave work at work – This is really hard, but leave all your work related worries at your desk. You’re always going to think: did I dot that i and cross that t? You might not have, but don’t let it pull you down. Go home, turn your Blackberry off and keep a clear mind.
  • Hobbies – Engage in stuff that make you happy: does smoking cigars calm you down? go for it. Does retail therapy work for you? Spend some money on yourself. The more you get to know your partner, the more you realise they have a fair bit going for them outside of the office. They probably own a pub in some country town; they own a business which operates a ski resort in NZ; they have a limousine service etc… You should work towards making a hobby into a small business plan. Maybe open with an ebay store? I have a colleague who has a vegetable market as a side business, starting from scatch less than a decade ago.

To your firm, you’re just another piece of meat. You generate three times over what you earn and your partner still gives you performance lectures. What is important, is your health and mental well being – and this isn’t a primary concern for your partner.

You need to establish your own balance, and by doing so, you’ll become more efficient and dare I say, content, with yourself.

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Post 7: Mac what?

Law firms are a tough place to work. At times, things are slow, but for the most part, there’s a lot of stressful and time consuming work that needs to be done. If you’ve been in office till 10pm the night before, you’ll be dragging your feet the next morning with little motivation.

Partners, being an essential part of a firm, also have a lot on their plate:

  • They sign off on everything, and if anything goes bad, they carry the blame for it (well, in theory anyway).
  • They’re always concerned that a troublesome client may withhold fees.
  • They’re stressed about the end of financial year and meeting targets of $3m.
  • They have their watchful eye on that one SA who continues to impress the firms partnership; clients always preferring to liaise with the SA because he is so much better with his interpersonal skills and down to earth attitude; and the SA possessing real ability to go boutique and potentially have $1m of WIP (work in progress) follow him is a serious threat to a partner.

All this, at times, causes partners to make silly mistakes, such as:

Partner: Did you email the documents to Macooza?

2nd Year Lawyer: Ummm….Macooza? I’m not sure whether I’ve dealt with that matter at all.

Partner: File number …… email Macooza what he requested.

2nd Year Lawyer: But I don’t…ok sure…I’ll do it right away.

20 mins later…

2nd Year Lawyer: There’s no one on file called Macooza. Mr Z has been emailing from an account called Mac User. It’s usually a pre-filled term on Mac computers I think. So Mac User is actually Mr Z. Oh, and he was emailed everything last week.

Partner: Good to know.

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Post 6: Habits make us

In Post 3 I discussed some qualities partners at law firms have in terms of their strong work ethic and attention to detail.

Alongside having appealing professional qualities, partners can also be amusing to watch:

  • One partner on my floor has an ever growing wardrobe in his office. Ties, suspenders, shoes , shoe polish and shoe horns, suits, cufflinks, belts etc… randomly hanging off fixtures around his office. On one occassion, said partner had a meeting with a client wearing a particular shirt in the morning. During lunch, partner went to David Jones bought a new shirt, wore a different tie, and went into the afternoon meeting with the same client, wearing a new look.
  • There’s another partner, whom I don’t know too well, who has a luxury city apartment, and an apparently impressive mansion 8km’s away from the cbd. The city apartment being his home during the week, and the mansion 8km’s away being his “getaway”.
  • A former partner I used to work for was obsessed with acronyms. When handing me a bundle of papers: “FYI” (for your information); when reading a financial statement: “this is our client’s AB” (annual budget); when arguing client was complying with client procedures: “ask client to email us their DQV policy” (Data Quality Verification). An otherwise cool, calm and collected graduate was about to have a nervous breakdown not knowing how to keep up.
  • Before Al Pacino’s Vittoria coffee commercials hit the screens, there was a partner trying to somewhat live this image. Corner table on the cafe porch, serious face, half pouted lips, pimp ring, dark sunglasses, small cup of dark coffee, reading newspaper/file etc. The pale skin, expanding bald patch, and posh accent didn’t cut it. I always had a hard time concealing a chuckle.
  • In my opinion, a lot of partners are hard bosses. Abrupt, snappy, impatient, short tempered and sometimes plain rude to graduates, juniors, or SA’s. However, there usually is someone in the team for whom the partner’s fatherly instict kicks in. This one person, usually happens to be a naive pretty young female fresh from law school. So when you see an otherwise hard boss cooing and wooing a young female colleague…you’re really not sure how to describe that feeling.


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Post 5: Jumping ship

During law school, you’re often told how great and multifaceted a law degree is. You’re given the image that it can take you anywhere. You will be told that, should you wish, you’re well placed for careers outside the legal sector including in business and banks, corporate and advisory, government and politics, journalism and the media. You find these representations assuring, and feel ahead of the crowd.

The reality is, you are an entry level candidate for any career. If you enter private practice, you do so as a graduate. If you join the graduate program at a bank, consulting group, government department or anywhere else, your law degree doesn’t set you apart at all. You aren’t ahead of any non law applicant. Should you end up in a graduate program outside the law, you won’t get paid higher than non law graduates or receive any sort of special treatment you feel entitled to.

This doesn’t change much even if you spend some years as a lawyer in private practice. The experience would assist you in getting other legal jobs such as an in house or government lawyer/legal officer position, but it stops there.

Around the 2-4 years PQE mark, many young lawyers move out of the law altogether, and take an unanticipated pay cut due to their ignorance of where they’re placed in the non legal market. What does one do when they overhear a junior workplace relations lawyer at a cafe tell a friend: “I’m pursuing a business development consulting position, I’m feeling really good about it. My experience here should put me ahead of the crowd, don’t you think?” Take a sip of your coffee and try not to choke.

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Post 4: Baby Barristers

In Australia, there are lawyers who operate as Barristers and others who operate as Solicitors. In some jurisdictions, a lawyer can operate as both. A Barrister is a self employed lawyer who specialises in court and opinion work. There is a slight degree of prestige attached to being a barrister. Solicitors operate from a firm of solicitors, whereas barristers operate from a set of chambers; chambers being the premises individual barristers share. Some chambers have a good reputation in a particular area, for example, a good criminal set has barristers who excel in criminal defence, or a good commercial set where barristers have a good reputation in commercial disputes. Barristers are briefed (read: hired) by solicitors who are seeking specialist opinion on usually disputed matters or require court representation for their clients. Barristers are part of an association known as the Independent Bar.

During your career in the law, you are likely to work with colleagues, usually young solicitors, who aspire to join the Bar and work as barristers. They will go out of their way to find a reason to telephone a barrister who they are briefing. They will try and push their way into a barrister/supervising partner meeting or teleconference. They will stress to fellow colleagues that barrister said this and barrister said that. Whilst such colleagues should be commended for their aspirations, my experience of such colleagues is that they are usually on the wrong track when it comes to achieving their goals.

In my opinion, the majority of the larger firms do not provide the ideal grounding for a career at the bar, unless you work in their commercial litigation team. Successful barristers have an excellent and thorough understanding of procedure, being rules relating to judicial proceedings. Large firms provide a good platform to excel in ones understanding of an aspect(s) of substantive law by providing junior lawyers the opportunity to work alongside some of the leading lawyers in their field. However, given how young lawyers are almost immediately pigeonholed into a practice area, this good platform doesn’t go far enough in training juniors as to the rules governing the process when courts adjudicate on questions of substantive law.

So, when an eager and young banking and finance lawyer, so keen on mixing with barristers, tells you they want to become a barrister, it’s hard for you to encourage them knowing they’re off track. Young lawyers intending on joining the bar need to consider whether they are developing the skill set and knowledge base to allow them to make a smooth transition to the bar. I mentioned earlier that commercial litigation provides the ideal environment for people who want to head to the bar. Reason being, in a commercial litigation practice group, you’re constantly involved in dealing with contentious disputes heading to court. You’re involved in preparing all the related court documents, pleading a position, and appearing in court at the earliest stages of a matter. You learn procedure, your court appearances improve your advocacy skills and you learn to think fast on your feet. You are exposed to a wide range of causes of action, and you learn the substantive law behind these actions.

If done properly, a career at the bar is rewarding. You work on your own terms, choose your own clients, don’t operate a trust account, and you are most likely doing the type of work you enjoy. Oh, and there’s always the chance of joining the $7000-a-day club.


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Post 3: Partner material

Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague regarding what qualities makes a law firm partner. Most of the larger law firms in Australia operate as business partnerships. The partnership is made of senior lawyers who hold equity in the partnership, sharing in the profits, and others who are salaried partners – earning large capped salaries with no equity. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on partner qualities.

I am in close working proximity to four equity partners. They are all very thorough and meticulous practitioners with excellent and creative problem solving skills. They are concise and have fairly good memory – the partner I report to directly is particularly impressive. He can, after one read, digest and regurgitate the content of an extensive document to a very high level of accuracy with minimal notes. This always amazes me. He has no need to go back to a particular section to make sure he has the facts or the law right. Partners are also excellent written and oral communicators which complements their client building, networking and professional relationship skills.

Alongside sharing such professional qualities, I believe partners also share some similarities in their private lives. Of the four partners I mentioned above, three have gone through a divorce or separation. One took extended leave at one point in his career to work on his mental health following problems in his personal life. Most partners also seem to be addicted to work, and their work seems to be the single most important component, and driving force, in their lives. Receiving an email on your Blackberry from your supervising partner at 3.30am on a weekday morning, or at 7am on Sunday, is at times a regular occurrence.

There are many junior lawyers who find partners intimidating. Whether partners know they’re intimidating to junior practitioners or not, I do not know. However, I have heard numerous young lawyers complaining they’re afraid to check on a point with their partner because he doesn’t have time to supervise them or because they don’t want to come across as dumb or incompetent with the questions they ask. So, are partners intimidating because of who they are, or how they are perceived. I would say, for the most part, it’s because how they are perceived; although I’ve heard of a case where one partner would miss no opportunity to draw attention to his status by making comments like: “you’ll have to work a lot harder if you have any partnership aspirations”, “you won’t make partner with that mindset” and “I’m partner, my opinion is sufficient”. Whilst some partners are happy to flaunt their achievements, others are very humble and down to earth with an open door policy. There is a partner at our firm who has an excellent relationship with nearly every employee who knows him. His known for inviting his team to his house for dinners; spends generously on gifts marking a significant event in the life of a team member, and is all too happy acknowledging graduates and making sure they’re comfortable with their tasks.

Given that legal practice has a very high drop out rate, many partners are very resilient. I believe the majority of people who start as lawyers, don’t remain lawyers throughout their careers. The first couple of years in the law wears many people out. The long hours and demanding nature of the job doesn’t suit most. As a result, careers are sought elsewhere, including in government, management consulting, academia, marketing etc… Those who have stayed in full time legal practice after three years should be congratulated for their strong work ethic.

If young lawyers want to aspire to make partner some day, they will have to accept there really is no work-life balance in the big firms. There are set billable targets which are often hard to achieve during normal working hours, and requires frequent late nights and weekends. You find yourself sacrificing your social life very early on in your career as you realise you are regularly given urgent work at 5.30pm and won’t be able to get dinner with friends at the promised 7pm. You can’t attend family gatherings on a weekend because you have to go back into office to work on a brief to counsel. The worst part of it all is not being able to say no. You really can’t tell your superior ‘I can’t do the work this late into the evening because I have friends to meet‘ as that reflects negatively.

However, if you “make it” the rewards are greater than they are in other industries. If you’re made senior associate or a salaried partner you’ll be earning well over $150k and $250k per year respectively. If you make equity partnership, you’ll be around the $1m mark. Of course, such achievements come as a result of great sacrifice on your part.



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Post 2: Horses for courses

If you are in legal circles, you will find there are a lot of lawyers who complain about their jobs and how it takes over their lives. I find this complaining to be more common amongst junior and new lawyers. In fact, I haven’t come across a senior lawyer complaining about their job (maybe the complain to other seniors).

The law is such a vast profession, it is impossible to practice in each area. To a lot of people who aren’t in the law, the law involves dramatic court room scenes, wigs and gowns. However, the great majority of lawyers aren’t barristers (advocates/trial lawyers) who appear in court arguing a case. The practice of law covers a wide spectrum including: family law, criminal law, corporate law, commercial law, estate & elder law, property & construction law, employment & industrial law, human rights law and the list goes on. Further, within these areas of law, you have numerous specialisations. For instance, there are corporate lawyers who spend their entire careers doing Mergers & Aquisitions alone. There are family lawyers who specialise in child custody issues and won’t advise on division of matrimonial property. Within commercial law you’ll have lawyers specialising in business structures and trusts. In property law you’ll have lawyers who only take instructions in commercial leasing. You will find criminal lawyers who only deal with motor vehicle and traffic offences. In the 21st Century Australia, you won’t find a lawyer who can take instructions in all areas of law.

Given the way the law has become, a lot young lawyers enter an area of practice not knowing what it entails. I hear this over and over again – “I wish I knew before”. The best way, I believe, to over come this is to try and work in as many law firms as possible during your time at law school. At university, you will find an area of study enjoyable. For instance, you might enjoy studying criminal law – however, you might find the practice of defending people charged with offences as depressing. On the other hand, studying property law might have been boring, but practicing in property law might be enjoyable. By working across a number of firms in different areas, you are most likely to get a good insight into what a practice area entails and how well it sits with you.

There is always the question of earning a decent living. Some areas of law pay a lot more than other areas. One of my colleagues really enjoyed human rights law and working a community based legal clinic. She loved representing disadvantaged people, refugess, low income earners etc… The practice was very rewarding and really worked for her. However, she was having a hard time making ends meet. A lot of community clinics operate on donations and government grants, and aren’t able to compete with salaries in the private sector. She eventually left and started working on commercial matters; she hates commercial work but she’s in a much better financial position. And for her, that is what matters at the moment – financial security.

This is a very common situation amongst many lawyers (and perhaps other professionals) – doing something because of the pay as opposed to the enjoyment. In my opinion, the best way to navigate this problem is for law schools to assist in providing accurate representations involving the practice of law and how it operates in this day and age. Include compulsory placements in the faculty syllabus so people get a realistic idea of the profession. There currently are vacation placements offered by firms, but these don’t go far enough. A lot of vacation workers find themselves researching, collating documents, photocopying etc… as opposed to getting involved in the nitty gritty.

For people who are in a position where they have to decide which area of law they want to start in, I’d say do something that you’ve done thorough research on. Don’t go into a practice area not knowing what it is.

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