Freshfields associate’s death highlights concerns over heavy City workloads

While Matthew Courtney’s family, friends and colleagues come to terms with their loss, the tragic death of the Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer newly qualified associate has reignited the debate about associate workload.

As first reported by Lawyer News Daily last Wednesday (14 February), any suggestion that Courtney’s death was causally related to his workload at Freshfields is a distortion of the facts as they currently stand. It is still unclear whether Courtney was stressed or if his death was anything more than a tragic accident.

Freshfields declined to comment on the cause of Courtney’s death, but said in a statement: “Matt was a terrific person and a very promising lawyer. His death is a shock to us all, and he will be sadly missed. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends.”

Courtney plunged to his death on Friday 9 February from a stairwell at London’s Tate Modern. He died instantly from head and chest injuries when he fell from between the seventh and sixth floors of the gallery where he was attending a social function. An inquest into his death was opened at Southwark Coroner’s Court last Thursday (15 February). The inquest has been adjourned until March.

Courtney’s death prompted an unprecedented number of readers to contact The Lawyer. Some simply wanted to express how saddened they were to hear of the news. Others, however, were keen to express their views on associate workload following claims by The Times and the Evening Standard last week that Courtney was called on to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

One IP lawyer who was an associate at a magic circle firm told The Lawyer that these sorts of hours “are not inconceivable, but you would have to be working on a major M&A transaction or a big piece of litigation”. Nevertheless, she said that some of the press reports have been “wildly exaggerated”.

One IP lawyer at another magic circle firm claimed to be aware of at least two associates is his department who are frequently in the office past midnight for weeks on end. He added that, although the focus has recently been on the associate workload in corporate departments, there is just as much pressure, if not more, on junior lawyers in specialist groups.

The amount of stress junior lawyers face should not be underestimated. Being a trainee one day and a qualified lawyer the next is a big transition. The lawyer added that firms must ensure they have proper support functions in place, and said that he would welcome the introduction of an externally run counselling scheme.

Clifford Chance head of IP Vanessa Marsland said the hours IP lawyers have to put in depends on the type of work they handle. “Some of my people here work on the IP aspects of big transactions and their hours can reflect the hours worked by their colleagues in finance,” she said.

However, she added: “Nobody here does the hours suggested in press reports. I don’t want stressed-out, tired people working on anything. They’re not going to be able to do the work as well. We’re constantly having discussions about staffing and workload at all levels.”

There is no denying that, in the current M&A boom, associate workload and work-life balance are issues that must be taken more seriously by law firms. A recent survey conducted by polling company YouGov on behalf of The Lawyer revealed that 41 per cent of associates between one and two years’ PQE said they would take a paycut to ensure a better quality of life.

Several firms, including Freshfields, are tackling work-life balance head on. As first reported by The Lawyer (14 November 2005), Freshfields and Linklaters both overhauled their systems for allocated work to corporate associates in response to the M&A boom. Simmons & Simmons, meanwhile, now rewards junior staff for working unsociable hours with additional leave.

In addition to addressing issues concerning working conditions, a string of firms, including Ashurst, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith, Freshfields and Lovells, have overhauled their associate career paths.

The measures firms are taking to reduce associate workload will be welcomed by junior lawyers. But such steps will not make a difference unless partners and associates change their work ethos. It takes more confidence to turn work away when exhaustion sets in than to keep taking more on.

Matthew Courtney, A Tribute

Matthew Courtney joined Freshfields in August 2004. As a trainee he sat in departments including corporate, finance and tax and was seconded to Amsterdam. Upon qualification he took a month’s leave before joining his first choice department, IP, in the autumn of 2006.

The following is a tribute by some of Matthew’s friends and colleagues at the firm.

“Within minutes of meeting Matt, one could end up in a heated discussion about cookery or the arts. Whether it be the intricacies of creating the perfect pasta sauce or the delicate wordplay of a new writer he’d discovered, Matt was passionate about sharing the things that mattered to him. For those of us fortunate enough to have known him, it is this enthusiasm for life that we will miss the most.”

“An avid film buff, Matt could rarely last a day without visiting one of his favourite film trivia websites. He was also a music lover and sung in the National Youth Choir as a teenager. His eyes would light up when talking about the various musicians he admired.”

“Matt adored reading and had an almost evangelical fervour for the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – he even learnt
Spanish so he could read One Hundred Years of Solitude in its original language. It was always interesting to see him try to be polite when faced with someone who said they didn’t like it.”

“Matt was a wonderful friend. He was there with you when
you wanted to celebrate the joyful moments of life, and
there for you when you needed to get through the rougher patches. We were lucky to have had him in our lives.”