Newsflash: Making Lawyers Work Obscene Hours is Bad

Large firm King & Wood Mallesons has managed to attract the attention of a Worksafe investigation.

Why? For “overworking lawyers and staff…” (the phrase used in the Australian).

So far as the news reports it, apparently:

  • KWM acted for a bunch of institutions facing the Royal Commission
  • The Commission had tight deadlines and there was lots of work to do
  • Staff needed to put in obscene hours to meet those demands, which resulted in things like sleeping at the office and other stuff that simply can’t be sustained.
What’s amazing is that this investigation is unprecedented – as if this kind of situation is new.

Sort-of-disclaimer: this isn’t an actual article about KWM, not about the investigation – we don’t really know the details about any of it. But the topic itself is pretty interesting so I thought I’d latch onto the comments in the published articles about it…

Seriously Slow
Running a 24 hour law office working on high intensity high complexity matters is a terrible idea, and one which can only end up in a terrible firm culture
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Law is hard. It is high pressure, high stakes and potentially chunky hours. It has demanding clients, demanding principals, demanding shareholders (if you’re lucky enough to have them) plus a bunch of ethical and regulatory stuff to manage on a daily basis.

Large firms around the world for years have taken those already tough conditions and turned their firms into a never-ending scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Even KWM’s Australian predecessor, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, had a pretty heavy reputation in this regard.  I remember when speaking to one lawyer who worked there being told that it was common for a good number of people to be working in the office at 10pm after a full day’s work.

Client demands and huge workloads are regularly met by one simple mantra: just work harder.

This has been true for years, probably decades.

But now, for some reason, Worksafe has decided it’s interested? The only word for that (and it isn’t even a word) is LOL.

“The Wellbeing of our Staff is Absolutely Paramount”
This is what Mr Cox, the chief executive partner of KWM, apparently said as part of his response to news of the investigation. In saying it, he said what any managing partner would say in similar circumstances. We hear lots of pleasantries about how much firms love their staff on their websites, marketing materials and in their social media posts showing how much fun everyone’s having.

Paramount is an interesting word though, with a simple meaning:
“more important than anything else“.

But when staff are worked so hard that they end up complaining to a governing body, the chances that their wellbeing is “paramount” are pretty low.

We can also look at it logically. Staff wellbeing in this case wasn’t more important than:
  • the clients (could have said no to the job)
  • profits (could have hired more staff)
Therefore: not paramount.

I’m not trying to make the argument that people shouldn’t have to flog their guts out a bit now and then. And we have to accept that if a firm like KWM is struggling to deliver on the Commission’s requirements, then it’s probably a huge workload. Of course, KWM could have just declined to act for a couple of the clients it agreed to represent.

But at least let’s not respond to those situations with political sounding pleasantries that are clearly not true.

But Nobody Said Anything…
Taking on matters that your firm can’t handle without ruining its staff is only good for the owners.
One thing that stood out to me was an observation that nobody had complained internally about the grueling conditions.

This seemed to be so far removed from the reality of work culture that I had to read it a few times to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

So a high achiever, in a sea of high achievers, surrounded by high pressure and everyone working really hard, in a firm renowned for extremely long hours, in a profession that prides itself on how busy and tired we are, and wondering if they were the only person who couldn’t “hack” it… they didn’t shoot a note over to HR about the working conditions? Really?

In what world does anybody want to be THAT person in a culture where THAT person would quite plausibly kill their future at the firm by speaking up.

No world that I’ve worked in, and certainly not one where everyone seems to be getting on with business.

The sheer blindness that some firms have to the conditions they are putting their staff through is amazing. In truth, firms that run themselves like the ways I’ve described probably operate in a culture that’s the precise opposite of “R U OK Day”. When it comes to whether you’re struggling, it’s closer to “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Wake Up
It’s time to wake up.

Lawyers cannot work 20 hours a day, sleep at the office, and then get straight back to it after a couple of espressos.

Running a 24 hour law office working on high intensity high complexity matters is a terrible idea, and one which can only end up in a terrible firm culture. Having sleeping arrangements at the office rather than telling people to go home is wrong, and alien to every concept of long term mental health. Taking on matters that your firm can’t handle without ruining its staff is only good for the owners.

These things might seem challenging for a time, or “good intense” for a time, but over more than a couple of days we get wrecked. At best we end up doing a pathetic job. At worst we end up with mental health damage, ruined relationships and a desire to run from the profession entirely.

When it comes to big salaries in big firms with big cases, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

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