The Judge rules: thank-you, Weil, for exposing work-life balance charade

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By Judge John Hack on

Big law firms should be honest with their junior lawyers about what life is like at a top-tier practice: the money is great but it’s hard work


The mask has slipped.

For more than a decade, global law firms have been crapping on about how much they care about their junior lawyers and staff.

Nursery facilities for young mothers, stress counselling for crunch deals, sabbatical arrangements for those keen to self-publish their memoires, yoga classes and even at-your-desk Swedish massage. The work-life balance debate has seen it all.

Yet yesterday, with its ill-conceived April Fools’ gag, New York white shoe firm Weil Gotshal & Manges blew the gaff on the whole charade.

The firm’s spoof note — distributed by the bizarrely titled “chief talent officer” (puts one in mind of jolly summer break cabarets) — has been widely publicised.

In summary, junior lawyers were informed that in a rush of munificence the partnership had dictated that worker bees would no longer be required to keep an eye on their emails between the hours of 11 o’clock in the evening and six o’clock in the morning.

Initially that appeared to be a radical and untypical acknowledgement by an international commercial law firm that human beings actually need sleep to function; but soon the message turned out to have a cruel twist. It was an elaborate joke, triggering outrage from associates that ultimately forced a senior partner into a grovelling apology.

Embarrassing, indeed, for Weil, but ultimately has the firm has done the profession a favour? Yes.

Large law firm partnerships should be honest with their junior lawyers, their clients and prospective trainees by coming clean about what life is like at a top-tier practice. It’s hard … and stressful … and not that much fun most of the time.

This is the drill. From the moment a trainee is taken on at qualification, that person is put on a treadmill involving hours and hours of often tedious work, little actual client contact and harsh criticism if billing targets aren’t met.

For the first few years, these lawyers can effectively wave good-bye to private lives. Trainees should ask themselves: why do so many of these firms effectively have their own restaurants and in some cases even sleeping quarters on site? Because they don’t want you to leave the building — not even for a bloody cheese and pickle roll.

By a certain stage, if an associate hasn’t been bumped up to that nonsense title of salaried partner, then alarm bells ring. And by another stage, if a salaried partner isn’t on track for a slice of the firm’s equity, another set of flashing lights illuminates.

The truth is that commercial/transactional lawyers at large firms are paid well, but they work like pit ponies until they are made full equity partners anywhere between the ages of 45-50 — and then they are pensioned off five years later without so much as a gold watch.

There may be a few hours in the firm swimming pool and a couple of massages and yoga sessions along the way, but there isn’t much balance in the work-life equation.

If nothing else, Weil’s epic April Fools’ “fail” has dramatically illustrated that useful reminder.


Global law firm apologises for April Fool promising better work-life balance [Legal Cheek]