Legal Widow

“They’re talking about doing away with lockstep,” said the Lawyer, toying with his chicken chasseur on Saturday night.


“That sounds like a dance,” said Liability, who does jazz dance on Saturday mornings. “Lockstep, lockstep, cha-cha-cha.”

“It’s military, actually,” I said. “It’s a rhythm designed so that marching men can follow each other as closely as possible. Quite appropriate, really. Lawyers don’t like to do anything unless they can hang it on the webbing belt of the chap in front.”

The Lawyer shot me an evil look, and I could see it wasn’t time to be flippant.

“What I mean is,” I said, “that without marching in time, you obviously get chaos. People marching off in all directions. Isn’t that right, dear?”

“Well, absolutely,” he said – and he was off. He’s rung a friend at a US firm that abandoned lockstep a few years ago, and it’s been brutal. At the beginning they didn’t bother to figure out what performance actually means in legal terms, and suddenly everyone was looking at big holes in their timesheets. All the managers who hadn’t done a scrap of billable work for years suddenly dived in on the major projects, leaving the junior partners and associates to grab proofreading off the assistants, who were left fighting over photocopying, with the secretaries giggling like hyena cubs on the sidelines: it really was like the scene of a kill on the African savannah.

Then they all turned their attention to new business, and every director, public or private, within a five-hour flight zone got seriously schmoozed. One finance director even rang the personnel department to complain of harassment after a particularly desperate banking partner followed him on holiday and was found offering his children ice-creams by the pool. He got found out when the children asked: “Who was that strange man who keeps his towel in his briefcase?”

They soon found this wasn’t working, so they devised an elaborate system of points based on unmeasurable qualities, such as loyalty, dedication, mentoring ability and being nice. Being what they are, the idea of anything unquantifiable put the lawyers in a bit of a panic, so they attempted to impose a bit of lawyerly order on the process: they would email the personnel department if they were in the office before 8am or after 7pm (dedication); they would hold big parties to celebrate their date of appointment and remind everyone how long they’d been there (loyalty); they would grab quivering trainees by the arm and frogmarch them into lunch to demonstrate mentoring; and the secretaries all put on masses of weight, because the only way lawyers can possibly conceive of being nice to people is by spending their hard-earned money (but not too much) on them – QED chocolates.

Subjudice asked why lawyers, given that they like parting with their money so little, had lockstep in the first place, if it just meant paying everyone more every year.

“Well, I think it was meant to be fairer, and to stop people tearing each other apart,” said the Lawyer. “And when you’re starting out it means you can learn the ropes without worrying about pay. And it was supposed to encourage us to cooperate – you know, help each other, from each according to his means, and so on.”

“So,” said Deminimus, who is doing the Cold War at the moment. “It’s an argument for a centralised economy, really? Like having a war, or like communism?”

Which is about the only way, reflected the Lawyer, that equity partners, at firms up and down the country, could ever be described as communists.