Of misery and money

The reasons for the death of Freshfields IP associate Matthew Courtney are still unknown. However, many have linked the tragedy to the long hours he was working while at the magic circle firm. Whether this assumption is right or wrong, the incident at the Tate Modern on Friday 11 February has sparked the debate over associate workload (again).

Law firms, like any other employers, owe a responsibility to all their trainees and associates to ensure they aren’t exploited. But one issue that sometimes gets ignored during this debate is whether individual lawyers feel they have a choice.

It is not compulsory to land a job as a City lawyer. And even if you fall onto the law firm graduate recruitment conveyor belt, you can still jump off it at any stage.

I speak with some experience. I qualified into the corporate department of a magic circle firm at the height of the dotcom boom and initially had a fantastic time. But the long hours took their toll. I therefore re-evaluated my options and decided law wasn’t for me.

I was lucky to have a clear idea of what I’d rather be doing. Moving into journalism meant my salary was slashed by two-thirds, but letting go of my big City salary was the easy part (you can live on less than £50,000 in London); it was my pride that received a serious blow.

During discussions with friends still working in City firms, we identified four types of associate. First, there are those who are like me. Then there are those who are unhappy, but can’t see a way out. In the third category are associates who enjoy their jobs but aren’t interested in becoming partners. And finally there are the ambitious ones who are happy to slog their guts out in return for partnership.

The people in the first and last groups don’t pose much of a problem for City firms. But the middle categories are proving to be more of a headache for them, and the human toll is immense.

Thankfully, several firms have recently introduced alternative career paths, although there is not enough change in the hours. But the category of unhappy associates is not just a law firm’s problem, it’s one only the individual can find the answer to. When I worked for a magic circle firm I was led to believe that, if I left, I’d fall off the edge of the world. But that proved not to be the case. You do have a choice: is the money worth it?