By DebbieH 03 Dec 2018 7 min read

Young lawyers rebel against culture of overwork in top law firms

Young lawyers are pushing back against a culture of overwork in Australia’s top commercial firms.


According to The Guardian, two top-tier firms, Gilbert + Tobin and King & Wood Mallesons have been investigated by safe work authorities in New South Wales and Victoria, and advocacy groups commented that a culture of overwork and exhaustion is apparent throughout the industry.


The Legal Forecast, a not-for-profit group that provides support for students and early-career lawyers, has put out a position paper, calling on law firms to change the pattern of work.


Alex Solo worked as a graduate at a top-tier firm from 2013 to 2017. He told Guardian Australia them that overworking would be familiar to any lawyer.


“Staying back late is part of the culture,” he said. “Leaving at 5pm is sort of laughed at. If you worked a late night, you wouldn’t go home. You don’t really sleep. You’d go home the next day and have a nap, but you’d work all through the evening.”


The long hours often exacerbated poor mental health issues within the profession, the position paper from the Legal Forecast said.


“Mental health issues are pervasive among the profession and fuelled by the widespread belief that a willingness to work well beyond the standard 38-hour work week is necessary to excel,” the group said.


Edwin Montoya Zorrilla, a spokesman for the Legal Forecast said overwork was due to the system of billable hours, where firms charge clients for each hour their lawyers work.


“It prevents companies from innovating to perform more work in the same time because you are billing by time rather than outcome,” he said. “In other industries, like accounting, it has been superseded by other systems of billing.


“Low-skilled work is dumped on junior lawyers most of the time. Because their performance is measured around billable work, there’s really no limit to how much work that can be put on them. Their work is whatever is necessary for what the senior lawyer has to do.”


Last year, the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division ran a survey for young lawyers in the UK, where more than half of respondents said they regularly or occasionally feel unable to cope at work because of pressure. The source of this stress? The data showed that 65% blame their “high workload”. It would also appear law firm partners aren’t helping stress levels either, with 50% of JLD members citing “ineffective management” as a cause. Other contributing factors name-checked by respondents included lack of support, client demands, and billing targets.


And this stress seems to be having a knock-on effect. According to the study, 53% of juniors have nearly made a mistake that would not have happened if they were not overworked, while 45% revealed their family life and personal relationships have suffered.


This research is likely no surprise to those in the legal profession. In 2016, research by virtual law firm Keystone Law revealed 67% of lawyers felt they were more stressed than those working in other professions. A whopping 80% of the 300 associate and partners surveyed cited workload as the number one source of their stress.


Speaking about the pushback regarding overwork in Australia, Zorrilla said speaking out about the culture was a career risk for young lawyers.


“We commend any individuals who are coming forth in the course of these investigations,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to do so. It generates some amount of risk for people’s careers. Nobody wants to be seen as the one who can’t keep up with the demands of the firm.


“But it should not be incumbent on individuals to drive the change themselves. Pointing the finger at one or two companies is not going to lead to any widespread change. It needs to come from the top down.


“Every time this is brought up with someone senior at the firm, the response is that they are also under significant pressure. But you need to think about your grads in firms in more than just what they can provide in billable hours.”