Focus: Magic Circle work-life balance - Work, rest and fair play
26 July 2010
With long hours the norm for most lawyers, achieving a work-life balance can be an uphill task. Should magic circle firms be doing more to help their associates?
One of the idiosyncratic habits common to many senior management figures in the legal world is a tendency to talk about their respective firms as if they are families.
You can feel it in the pained way they describe the defection of partners to flashier rival suitors, in the enthusiastic tones employed to laud client wins and in the paranoid protectiveness of their distinctive ways of working. By the same token, it is often difficult for them to accept criticism when it comes to how they treat their own people.
But some issues raised by associates at magic circle firms recently have brought into focus the need for firms to engage on a more regular and wholehearted basis with the lawyers further down the food chain, particularly those in the transactional parts of the business where the pressure can be most intense.
More than one associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has, over the past few months, made The Lawyer aware of an incident last autumn in which a corporate associate worked several all-nighters while unwell after suffering broken ribs following a fall at home. The associate was later discovered to have a serious lung condition and eventually took time off work. The partner who was leading the matter on which the associate was working has not been seen in the office since and several colleagues have suggested that the incident was handled poorly.
Freshfields will not be drawn on the specific circumstances surrounding the incident - or any subsequent inquiries - and is keen to portray it as an isolated event, unrelated to any widespread problems. While there is no suggestion that any issues around associate workload are either endemic at Freshfields or indeed any different to those experienced by other members of the magic circle, the incident has resurrected some age-old questions about work-life balance - and how practice leaders can help associates to achieve it.
Long hours are a fact of life for ambitious lawyers, particularly at the top end of the spectrum - and of the pay scale. But firms are increasingly keen to create a more supportive atmosphere and be seen to have open lines of communication between partners and their assistants.
All of which makes even one incident a genuine cause for concern, as Freshfields head of HR Kevin Hogarth admits.
“There will be examples where things won’t always work perfectly,” he says of last year’s incident. “If there are any lessons to learn they would absolutely be taken on board.”
While associate discontent continues to bubble under the surface across the City, the truth is that Freshfields has been actively addressing these issues for some time.
Hogarth was brought in as firmwide HR head in September 2008, just four months after Caroline Stroud moved into the newly created role of global HR partner. Since then, both have been instrumental in launching Freshfields’ first global employment survey.
“It’s about trying to get at what’s important to our people,” says Stroud. “It’s looking at the areas where we fall short and where we’ve exceeded what they’re looking for.”
The survey has yielded some material changes, including the introduction of an associate engagement group, the launch of a pilot project around flexible working arrangements in the London corporate group and a mentoring scheme matching female associates with senior partners.
Stroud says that the emphasis on engagement, embodied by the creation of her role, comes directly from Freshfields’ global strategy, with the stated aim of being recognised as the world’s leading law firm.
“What we want is that whenever anywhere in the world anyone meets a Freshfields lawyer, they get someone who is distinctively Freshfields,” she adds.
But with increasing numbers of junior magic circle lawyers looking to change their career trajectories, the feeling is that such a sentiment, while a great selling point for the firm, does not address the more fundamental issue of achieving an acceptable work-life balance.
Neither Stroud nor Hogarth believe that today’s associates are asked to work any harder than their predecessors, but there is an acceptance that the world is a different place.
“We need to be aware of changing attitudes and changing ways of working,” admits Hogarth. “We talk to partners about generational changes and help them think through some of the issues around that. We want to attract and retain the best people. It means we need to be conscious of the fact that technology has changed the way people work.”
The globalisation of clients, the tyranny of the BlackBerry and the ubiquity of the transatlantic conference call means that work for the biggest firms can often follow the sun. Associates cannot necessarily switch off when they leave the office.
“The culture is that you have to be available to get the job done,” confirms one magic circle banking associate. “No one ever says you have to be there through the weekend to do something but the unspoken rule is that if you ever do leave [the office] or weren’t responding to emails you’d soon be managed out. If you want to stay at the firm, there’s no choice. It’d be much better if it was out in the open.”
No pain, no gain
With salaries on qualification nearly three times the UK’s average wage, it may be hard for mere mortals to feel much sympathy for magic circle associates. The Faustian pact offers ever-increasing rewards for a few years - or even decades - of hard work.
And while few would suggest that workload has increased in recent years, firms are eager to address the problem of work allocation and variety in their ongoing struggle to keep their best people.
“It’s a concern for them if they don’t have a happy workforce,” says a banking associate at another magic circle firm (see box), adding that there is an “across-the-board despondency” among his colleagues.
With a narrower gearing in most corporate and finance teams and fewer associates seeing partnership as the raison d’être of their legal career, keeping morale up is something that is high on the agenda in the magic circle. Allen & Overy did not respond to requests for comment, but both Clifford Chance and Linklaters say they have been actively engaging with the issue.
Linklaters global head of HR Jill King believes that adapting to the different needs of associates in the modern world is key to keeping them happy.
“I do think associates are considering a wider range of options than they were five or six years ago when it was just private practice or in-house,” she says. “Partnership isn’t everyone’s aspiration so the feeling now is that we want people’s time at Linklaters to be as useful to them as possible.”
King also highlights the generation gap that has opened up between assistants and some of their greyer-haired colleagues.
“It’s always difficult to compare different periods but the demands on everybody in working life have changed,” she continues. “Clients have become more demanding; much more so than when many partners were associates.”
To bridge the gap, Linklaters has also actively engaged in programmes to make the grafting more bearable for its put-upon associates. Like Freshfields, the firm has carried out a global engagement survey and has made its mentoring service available to all staff after piloting it in various practice groups.
This year has also seen the introduction of a confidential counselling service and a health and wellbeing initiative to help staff deal more effectively with stress.
None of which changes the fact that many people will continue to feel that the deal is no longer a fair one, with the increased pressure to churn out work limiting associates’ ability to forge the kinds of client relationships required to make the step up to partnership.
Clifford Chance has responded by trying to offer its lawyers more variety in their workload, something aided by its use of its Indian knowledge centre as a repository for more commoditised work.
“What hasn’t changed is that people have always worked hard,” says corporate personnel partner Simon Tinkler, who was recently made London corporate chief. “What has changed is that people want more variety and more of a mix in their careers.”
Clifford Chance is now offering overseas secondments to every associate, while it has ended the traditional link between bonuses and hours billed in an effort to encourage its lawyers to think beyond the bottom line.
“It’s moving away from the perception that it’s just about putting the hours in at the coalface,” adds Tinkler.
However, he is not alone in admitting that pressure from clients has ratcheted up as the world has shrunk. And that pressure often lands on the shoulders of associates. Most might accept the long hours as part of the job, but not if being available at all hours is the be all and end all.
As one associate puts it: “I’d rather be judged on how good I am as a lawyer, instead of how long I can stay awake.”
Inside view: one magic circle associate
”Partners may generally be quite available to talk to, but everyone knows that if you’re on a deal you won’t have any sort of work-life balance. We all have BlackBerries and are expected to always check them, so in a sense there’s added pressure. We could get more people in to help out - we’ve not had a hiring phase for a while and now the market’s picking up.
It’s a concern for them as well because they don’t have a happy workforce.
My colleagues all seem to have the same attitude about it - there’s a general across-the-board despondency about the job. It is always sold as something that will require hard work but they don’t exactly put that on their recruitment brochures.
The problem now is that you’ve got a lot of young people with no other ties - no families or kids - and they get to a point where they think: “Do I want to make partner?
hat am I doing this for?
If I’m working the hours I’m working I might as well go to an American firm or work for a bank.”