German lawyers urged to claim for ‘overtime’

Associates across Germany have been sent a letter from a niche employment firm urging them to claim hundreds of thousands of euros from their employers for overworking them.

The letter, understood to have been sent to all leading firms, calls on lawyers to take action against firms when they leave, using timesheets as evidence that their working hours have exceeded those allowed under German law.

The German Working Time Act, or Arbeitszeitgesetz, prevents employers from forcing staff to work more than 48 hours in a week or 10 hours per day. Employers can refuse to work overtime or claim money back if they do.

The mail-merged letter, sent by Ilja Selenkewitsch at Berlin employment firm Dr Jürgens & Dr Selenkewitsch and seen by The Lawyer, encourages associates to get in touch with the boutique for advice on taking a claim forward.

In it, Selenkewitsch says his firm “knows the hardships of young lawyers at large firms who are not partners” and takes a stab at partners for viewing associates differently from staff in other professions.

He highlights the tendency for associates to “devote themselves to their firm lock, stock, and barrel” and work unrecompensed overtime without complaint while recording every minute of work in timesheets.

The letter claims that associates can clock up overtime worth €100,000s in wages during the three-year statute of limitation – amounts that are not generally paid back when a lawyer leaves the firm.

Last year the state employment court for Berlin and Brandenburg awarded a lawyer more than €30,000 for around 900 hours of overtime worked over two and a half years. The court found a clause in the contract about the compensation of overtime to be ambiguous.

Firms are said to have taken little notice of Selenkewitsch’s letter as they believe that long hours are part of the job.

Georg Annuß, an employment partner at German independent Noerr, said his firm and his associates were not treating the letter seriously and claimed the law was not the only profession in which staff work long hours.

He told The Lawyer: “It’s the way we have to do our job. If they can’t do the hours they leave the firm. They know that they have to work for [a lawyer’s salary]. It’s really part of the deal”.

Although time sheets would provide evidence of hours worked, the absence of class actions in Germany would make claims difficult. Lawyers also say firms can dodge potential claims by making no reference in employment contracts to weekly working hours, meaning employees cannot define what overtime is.

Attempts by the legal profession to amend the German Working Time Act to take into account the realities of being a lawyer have previously failed.

Selenkewitsch was unavailable for comment.