Law grads

A note from me in The Australian Financial Review. I don’t know where they got that picture from…


James Philips

Law grads need better leadership to manage working hours

Ticking time sheets won’t make young lawyers happier. Law firms must set clearer expectations and be good people managers.

James Philips Contributor

Jan 22, 2020 – 2.40pm

Graduate lawyers sometimes work very long hours. Some graduates are unhappy with that. It is hard to know the full cause of that unhappiness, but changed prospects and attitudes are probably partly responsible. Poor management may also be a cause.

When I entered a large law firm as a graduate more than 30 years ago, my attitude to the moderate pay, high demands and long hours was that I was investing in my own skills and career prospects. I wanted to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. I was keen to move from interminable study to applying my knowledge to help clients. I wanted to make partner quickly.

Overwork: Some graduate lawyers now may have a different attitude in a more fundamental way in the age of work-life balance. 

It is hard to know how typical that attitude was. Based on my discussions with peers, something close to that attitude was not uncommon.

What’s changed? Some graduate lawyers have complained about the hours they work, and the Fair Work Commission is monitoring whether graduate lawyers are paid below award hourly rates, having regard to their above-award annual remuneration but also their long hours worked. That’s new. Of course, law firms must always comply with their legal remuneration obligations.

Then there are generational cultural and attitudinal differences. We need to be careful here. I am not aware of reliable data on these issues. Graduate lawyers at high-performing law firms are not typical of their age cohort. Many of them are at the highly intelligent and highly ambitious end of the distribution curve.

At least some graduate lawyers have attitudes not dissimilar from mine when I was a graduate. What they most want is the opportunity to do interesting work, and to learn and develop their skills. They care at least as much about mentorship, instruction and guidance on the job as they do about the level of their remuneration for the hours worked.

At least many law firms are aware that not all team leaders are always good people managers, and work on it.

But some probably haven’t bought into that deal. In the graduate recruitment process, law firms may emphasise the attractive aspects of working as a lawyer. Perhaps some graduates do not understand the full picture. And perhaps some do, but think it should be changed.

There may be rational and attitudinal reasons for dissatisfaction.

If you see your graduate lawyer role as a stepping stone to other jobs in law or in another industry, you may be less inclined to accept that the role involves investment by you in your own future. The proportion of graduates who do see their job as a stepping stone has risen over the years.

Some graduates now may have a different attitude in a more fundamental way. They may think it is unfair or exploitative that they work at a low hourly rate, or that their hours worked are inconsistent with their aspirations for work-life balance.

It has always been dangerous for high-performing law firms to talk in general terms about work-life balance. In some functional areas within law firms, working hours can be managed and are fairly predictable.

In the event-driven functional areas, such as work on large transactions or strategic litigation, deadlines are often short and intensity of effort is needed. The knowledge required to successfully execute that work has many dimensions, so that the work cannot just be spread around in order to avoid any lawyers working long hours.

That knowledge includes not only deep technical analysis and knowledge, but a detailed understand of all relevant facts and of the context of the transaction or case, including the client’s objectives and strategy – as well as the preferences of key members of the client’s team for such matters as style of communication and appetite for risk.

For those graduate lawyers who do accept the high-intensity nature of much of the work in some parts of a law firm, an issue at least as important as hourly remuneration is likely to be the quality of management of the transaction or case. Are the team leaders watching out for any signs of exhaustion or staleness? Burnout or sickness should never be part of the bargain.

Many transaction or case leaders see it as a core part of their role to monitor their team and give overburdened members a break, or reallocate work if needed. But some team leaders may at times fall down on this issue. Some graduates may see the hourly remuneration lever as an indirect way to address the unevenness of team-leader management skills. At least many law firms are aware that not all team leaders are always good people managers, and work on it.

If the issue of graduate lawyer remuneration is caught up with a bunch of issues, the fix may be not only about remuneration, let alone be resolved by new regulations that make ticking time sheets mandatory. In law firms, just like in other businesses, employment problems are best solved in the individual workplace. Clarity on just what the deal is for graduate lawyers, and good management in a demanding environment, is needed.

James Philips is a Sydney lawyer, company director and writer.

Published by James Philips

When his younger son was four years old, one Saturday afternoon James found himself – for the first time in years – with several hours in which he was not working for his law firm or doing things with his young family. He picked up a book of his choosing. It was a history book. James was born in 1960 in Sydney, Australia. His late elder sister, Petrina (known in the family as ‘Beans’) taught him to read before he went to school. He was sick with asthma and bronchitis for much of his childhood, and spent a lot of time reading – especially historical stories. He liked to argue for his views, too. His father, Peter, had studied law after returning from service in World War II, and many of Peter’s and his mother Sue’s friends were lawyers. James decided early on that he wanted to be a barrister (a type of attorney who represents clients in Court). His uncle Bill spent many hours restoring a rotting sailing dingy, in which James taught himself to sail while on the family’s annual beach vacations. At school he did well in math and science subjects, but also in English and history (which is where his heart was). He was captain of his high school debating team, and acted in several plays. He also produced and directed a play, and assisted in the production of others. One of his actors only suffered mild rope-burn when the harness that James had made for a hanging scene slipped… James won a scholarship to Oxford University straight after school. He was not as motivated in his studies there as he had been at school, and did not feel any connection to England. Those factors, and two people, had a big role in his decision to leave Oxford after four of the nine terms of his course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The first person was a wonderful woman whom he fell in love with, but who dumped him. The second was Margaret Thatcher, whose government put up fees for overseas students to a level which James could not afford. James then studied for a liberal arts and a law degree at Sydney University. He made his first investments in the share market while at university, using money that he borrowed on a credit card. After graduating, he worked at a law firm with some outstanding lawyers, who were passionate about excellence, about their clients, and about building the firm. He stayed at that firm for thirty years, becoming a partner, then head of Mergers and Acquisitions in Sydney, then co-head of Corporate, and a Board member for eight years. He loved being a solicitor (a type of attorney who rarely represents clients in Court), and never switched to becoming a barrister. More importantly, he met Julie Claridge there. James was smitten, and they became engaged after James’s eighth proposal. They were married and then blessed with two wonderful sons. Like many Australians, James and Julie love to travel. They resumed travelling when their younger son was three. Both boys were – mostly – fine with the twenty-four hour flights that Australians take. James and Julie encouraged intellectual curiosity in their sons, and helped to teach them how to participate in fact-based discussions and debates. Family discussions have been wide ranging since the boys were young. While at his first law firm, James was able to advise many local and offshore clients. He also helped the firm to grow its offshore business. He made a trip to Myanmar to test a recommendation that the firm should open an office there: he recommended that it should not. He advised the first company from the People’s Republic of China to list on the Australian Stock Exchange. He later made many business visits to the PRC. For more than twenty years he has been a visiting lecturer at the law school of the University of Sydney (currently ranked 12th in the world), teaching two topics on equity capital markets law. He wrote a long chapter for a leading subscription publication, on public merger and acquisition law in Australia. He has convened and spoken on many panels, and at many seminars and conferences. When he became head of Mergers and Acquisitions, to encourage some of his partners to take oral communication training, he took the training himself. He learnt a lot about the importance of preparation before every meeting and every presentation. His law firm was an innovator in teaching its lawyers to present complex advice concisely and with clarity. He is a director of a leading Australian think tank, and Chair of two real estate investment trusts. James and Julie have always lived on a pre-agreed amount, paid their taxes, made donations and used the rest of their income to invest. James sees investment as trying to apply knowledge about a range of topics to predict the future, and to pick future winners. At the end of the Great Recession, James and Julie sold their family home to take advantage of depressed investment asset values. After coming second in an election for Chair of his law firm, James moved to a global law firm where he became head of Corporate in Australia. There he sat in open plan, with a team of very capable and motivated young lawyers. He discovered that they did not know much about history or literature. In 2018 James decided to embark on a new project – to write a book about an important historical topic, in the hope that he could help to spread knowledge about what made the world as it is. He resigned as a partner from his law firm, and began work on his new mission.

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1 Comment

  1. There has been a lot of commentary on law graduates recently – what we like, what we value, how retention works, have we become ‘soft’, etc. I must say the solution seems to be right under management’s nose – ask the grads.


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