7 February 2000
I just heard the saddest story from one of my partners. In a coffee shop in Fleet Street, he noticed an exhausted young male lawyer who looked about three years qualified, drinking coffee with his knackered-looking young female trainee. Two large boxes of documents bearing the name of one of the City's top five firms lay between them on the floor. The dialogue went something like this: Trainee: I was wondering, you know, if I could... have a weekend off in February. Solicitor: (pause) A whole weekend? Why? Trainee: It's my birthday. Solicitor: Well, I know we were pretty busy in December and January and things are easing off just a bit but... (trails off into silence). Trainee: I wanted to visit my parents in Yorkshire. Solicitor: I see (long pause). Well, perhaps a Saturday, then.
It strikes me that there are now two kinds of law firms: those where if people want a weekend off, they have to ask for it, and those where if the firm wants people to work over a weekend, it feels obliged to ask if they are willing and able to do so.
Stories abound of London firms which simply cannot attract young lawyers to work for them, however much they pay. The inescapable conclusion is that prospective recruits have worked out that they will be tasked with Stakhanovite chargeable hours targets, that they will get zero nurturing of their careers and will be generally treated as cannon-fodder in the battle for the squillion pound profit share.
Good lawyers are among the most naturally driven people in commercial life. The best of them suffer from a strange kind of neurosis, an illness really, which drives them to seek new approvals from their clients and their peers again and again and again. Their motivation is comparable with that shown by great sports personalities. Vince Lombardi, the immortal coach of the Green Bay Packers NFL team which swept all before it in the 1960s, was once asked what he did to motivate his players. He answered that since those who played for him were already among the most motivated people in the world, his principal task as their coach was to avoid doing anything to demotivate them.
Those who are able to drive themselves will always rate higher than those who have to be driven, and the greatest businesses will be those which are best at nurturing the self-motivated. This brings us back to our trainee in the Fleet Street coffee bar. What kind of experience is her firm giving her and the legions like her? And what of the young assistant whose hapless task is to enforce this merciless regime on behalf of whoever is in charge?
The unpalatable fact is that these young lawyers are being robbed of the chance to develop their responsibility for themselves. The firms that drive them are not just killing them with overwork, but by failing to allow them to find out how to drive themselves, they're killing their instincts as lawyers. Just how much use will these young lawyers be to themselves or another firm after a few hundred more document boxes, when they finally discover that the magic circle does not include them in its plans?
Fortunately, clients are now taking a hand, with the recent and excellent limitation placed on the hours to be worked by lawyers instructed by Bass. Perhaps clients ought to require their lawyers to carry the equivalent of a commercial vehicle tachograph that would let clients see when the poor souls last had a weekend off.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org