Hannah Wiskin and Adrian Barnham of the YSG are on a mission to re-educate law firms on the age-old problem of work-life balance. Jon Robins reports

Those who have seen Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning anti-gun polemic Bowling for Columbine will be familiar with the kind of perplexed response from the many US interviewees in the documentary, as they fail to link their fondness for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms with the 11,000 gun-related murders that take place in the US every year. Hannah Wiskin, vice-chair of the Young Solicitors Group (YSG), was struck by the similarity between that mindset and that of law firms which appear incapable of comprehending “the correlation between the way they manage their assistant solicitors and why those same assistants are leaving… and leaving in droves”.

More particularly, Wiskin, a legal adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry, is thinking of the contrast between the partner indifference and apparent anger felt by associates at Allen & Overy (A&O) following the introduction of a new time-recording regime that will push lawyers to record a minimum of 2,200 ‘office’ hours (The Lawyer, 18 August). There have been 13 resignations in the somewhat ironically named employment, pensions and incentives team alone in the past year, and the YSG is gearing itself up for a fight on behalf of its members.

“It’s appalling, quite frankly,” says an incensed Wiskin. “I would have thought that any director or senior manager in industry would be facing some pretty serious questions about their management style if they had staff turnover along those lines.”

Attacking the so-called ‘long-hours culture’ will be one of the central themes for the YSG in the coming year. According to the group, A&O is not alone in what it calls its “shocking lack of understanding of, and commitment to, good management principles”. The group is constantly contacted by lawyers who are variously frustrated because they are given next to no responsibility or completely frazzled through sheer exhaustion. “We have such a high burn-out rate in the big City firms because of this high-billing-rate culture,” argues the new YSG chair Adrian Barnham, an associate at Bristol firm Burges Salmon. “If you are tied to the desk for your 10 hours of recordable time every day, how are you going to fit in the rest of your life? Something has to give somewhere along the line and it’s inevitably going to be home life, health, or your sanity.”

But just as young solicitors struggle to have their voices heard in the wider profession, the YSG has a fight of equally daunting proportions on its hands among the typically grey-haired and close-to-pensionable gentlemen at Chancery Lane. Earlier in the year, the group suffered a 30 per cent Law Society grant cut, from £45,000 to £30,000. It will no doubt have a fairly devastating impact on the group. “[£30,000] equates to just 60 pence a head a year for every young solicitor that we deal with. If we write to someone more than a couple of times a year we’ve spent it,” Barnham says.

The YSG in its first incarnation – the Young Members Committee – was established by the Law Society in 1958. Its sole purpose was to increase the number of young people involved at all levels of the profession’s management. On any analysis, it has failed. As it stands, the society’s own connection with any future generation of lawyers is close to non-existent – there are only three members of the 106-strong Law Society Council that are below the age of 36. To put those figures into some kind of context, there are some 109,000 solicitors on the roll and about 50,000 are younger than 35, but only 3 per cent of the profession’s leadership are young solicitors.

“It’s very worrying,” acknowledges Barnham. “The young end of the profession just can’t see the point of being involved in the society. That’s not because it doesn’t do fantastic work, it does, but it’s a problem of communication and perception.” It is a problem that the YSG also suffers from, as Barnham readily acknowledges, but he says that it is not through lack of trying.

The group is determined to make a big noise about the frustration felt by many of its members about their quality of life. Of course, the A&O saga has an uncomfortable echo of another memo story – that of Clifford Chance, which was crucified in the press following the infamous leaked note from a group of New York associates claiming that the firm’s billing requirements encouraged “padding”. To bolster staff morale, the firm was forced to ditch the requirement that its US lawyers bill at least 2,420 hours per year. As Barnham sees it, such practice not only alienates young lawyers, but it also goes down badly with the wider business community. “Clients do read the legal press, it would be strange if they didn’t,” he says. “Basically, young lawyers aren’t just a commodity that you can chain to the desk and work all the hours that you can possibly extract from them.”

The A&O memo assured associates that, although for most individuals the minimum hours were the equivalent to 10 hours per day, they did not have to spend those hours in the office. “For example, a lot of the reading needed to keep on top of know-how can be done on your journey to/from work or at home,” it said.

“One wonders if the authors ever use public transport during the rush hour. Perhaps the more enterprising among the associates will commit their piled up copies of PLC to tape and work out to them at the gym,” quips Wiskin.

Although firms endlessly bang on about their supposedly
‘family-friendly’ work policies, there appears to be little evidence of a more progressive profession emerging. This was borne out by a recent YSG survey, conducted with the Association of Women Solicitors, which revealed that the profession was facing an exodus of women lawyers fed up with the relentless macho environment of law firms. It found that just 57 per cent of women with 10-19 years of post-qualification experience are partners, compared with 85 per cent of men in the same range. Researchers interviewed some 439 women who had stopped renewing their practising certificates during the past five years, or who had gaps in their career history. It was found that nearly two-thirds claimed that they were leaving because of child-care reasons, and even more – almost 70 per cent – were deterred from returning to work because of problems with the home/work balance. “In recent years, the bigger firms have made such a big play about flexible working, but to be quite honest, I think it’s a sop. I don’t think much progress has been made at all,” Wiskin says. “When you hear about the policies, it tends to be only available to women in relation to child care and then for partners only.”

Of course, there is nothing new about young solicitors griping about their exploitation at the hands of their partners – Wiskin acknowledges that the so-called ‘long-hours culture’ has been topping her group’s agenda for 10 to 15 years. So what’s new this year? The YSG is calling on the Law Society to introduce compulsory people management training for senior solicitors as part of its Continuing Professional Development requirement. They argue that it is “absolutely essential that firms and the new generation of partners that come through the ranks take their obligations to their staff seriously”. The YSG also plans to develop careers advice to remind harassed lawyers that there is a better way, even if that lies outside of the profession. This will be the theme of its May conference next year and it plans to develop a careers service on their new website (www.ysg.org).

One complaint to come out of a recent management and partnership conference, hosted by the London YSG and the Law Society management section, was the worrying lack of information that associates could access about how to develop their careers. “It’s startling really,” Wiskin says. “There are these very bright lawyers, but from an early stage they’re programmed to go down one route. I’m not saying that we’re educating people to look outside the law, but certainly they should see the alternatives to working a 12-hour day and should understand that they don’t have to sacrifice their quality of work.”

Adrian Barnham
Hannah Wiskin
Young Solicitors Group (YSG)