14 June 1999
The Working Time Regulations have again thrown into focus the demands the legal profession imposes on its members. While firms may claim they have a culture that is demanding but informal, recognising that quality of life is an issue for partners and staff - the reality is often different.
All firms are in the market to serve their clients to the best of their ability and to attract new clients. Increasingly, clients impose fresh demands on lawyers, who are aware that failure to give full satisfaction may result in a beauty parade leading to a change in legal representation. Although compared to US firms UK lawyers do not work long chargeable hours, there is an assumption that the legal profession, like the medical profession, will work long and unsociable hours to satisfy the demands of clients. Partners are naturally keen to improve profitability and the assistants know only too well that if they are to have a realistic chance of being the partners of the future, they must work long hours in order to prove they have the ability to succeed in a challenging environment.
All of this is understandable and in many ways laudable. To work hard and to establish a successful and profitable firm by giving excellent service to clients should be the ambition of all firms. However, there should also be proper opportunity for outside interests, leisure and relaxation. In many firms, partners and assistants consistently fail to take their quota of holiday time. Some firms are considering amending or abolishing their sabbatical schemes for partners because partners will not exercise their rights to go on sabbatical.
No doubt there will be cases brought against firms under the Working Time Regulations but the answer will not be found in obeying the regulations alone. What is needed is a sensible balance between hard work and long hours and time away from work.
The Working Time Regulations give every law firm the opportunity to review its employment policies, including the hours worked by its members. Instead of being concerned at the length of time off partners and staff are entitled to, might not managing partners be better served in ensuring that every member does in fact take their holiday quota? Rather than abolishing sabbatical schemes, should not firms be ensuring that partners entitled to sabbaticals actually take them? And should not firms without sabbatical schemes now consider establishing them? In comparison with company directors, a sabbatical scheme should be regarded as one of the genuine benefits of being a partner in a law firm.
There is clear evidence that firms can be successful while allowing a quality of life to those who have, by their hard work, made those firms successful. Yes, the chargeable hours must and should be high, but the rewards of hard work should allow for sufficient time and opportunity to enjoy the fruits of professional success.
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