French firms face 35-hour week rule

Law firms in France could soon be forced to adopt the 35 hour week that accountants in the country have already accepted.

The first wave of legislation, which comes into force in January 2000, will cut the maximum working week from 39 to 35 hours for the majority of workers, but lawyers have so far remained exempt from any restrictions on their working hours.

Classed as “independent professionals”, lawyers, along with accountants, are currently free to spend as much time as they want working on last minute deals, but it is expected that within the next few weeks that situation could dramatically change.

Accountants in France have already voted to adopt the short working week and the French bar is currently involved in collective bargaining discussions with the government.

If the bar gives in to the socialist government's demands, then although partners may remain exempt as they are not employees, the working week could drastically shorten for associates.

A spokeswoman for Clifford Chance's Paris office says: “There is no official position given by the bar at the moment. But if the restrictions are adopted then it could have a drastic effect on law firms when you consider what sort of hours lawyers work.”

As the government continues to push ahead with the new regime, teams of inspectors have started cracking down on companies that do not push their employees out of the door on time.

In the past, a blind eye has been turned to white collar workers, but the new legislation means executives are now as much under the spotlight as their staff.

Spot checks on firms include taking photographs of cars in the company car park to record their owner's hours, and in many companies warnings are now being given to persistent “over-workers”.

If lawyers become subject to the same tight restrictions, then meeting tight deadlines on deals could become increasingly difficult, although it is thought likely that the bar would only submit to an annual, rather than weekly limit on working hours.

This would mean that by offering extra holiday periods and time off in lieu, associates would be able to work when they felt it necessary.