Stockholm Syndrome and Dementors rule the law

A HARD year for the City’s legal market is drawing to a close, and lawyers at those firms that haven’t cancelled their Christmas parties are looking forward to a booze-filled lead up to the New Year. And giving their two cents in RollOnFriday’s annual Firm of the Year survey. There seems to be little festive cheer in the sector.

It’s not entirely doom and gloom. Workflow is slowly improving, bonuses and salary rises are starting to creep back and at least the younger end of the profession is having a laugh – “training was good – lots of kicks and frolics. But once it was over, a totally different face emerged. That of a greasy old bum.”

Why the change? Four years ago, partners’ only worry about the forthcoming year was whether to upgrade their Porsche. Now they wonder whether their new office will have no windows and a seat that flushes. The resultant paranoia has meant that at some outfits the professional, courteous working environment of the pre-crunch firm has evaporated.

Typical comments include: “They treat lower staff like something you step in.” “Perhaps the most odious and dysfunctional private equity team in the City makes working here deeply unpleasant.” “This job is like syphilis. Getting it was fun, but it turns out to be very bad in the long run.” “Lower tier management have the people skills of the Dementors from Harry Potter.” “There is a culture of bullying and treating those who survived redundancy as no more than numbers on a sheet to be moved around and abused at will.”

Nor have the swingeing redundancies of the last couple of years been handled entirely successfully. One lawyer reports that his firm “has had to make substantial payouts to more than one person when they have been pushed out and it has not been dealt with properly or in line with employment law.”

They’ve also left some departments perilously short staffed, and those firms which are profiting from the very gentle upturn are seeing the inevitable results. It’s possibly no surprise that the top grievance is a general lack of any work/life balance.

“Crippling would be one word to describe the hours. Murderous would be another.” “At 4pm last Sunday there were around 30 of my 60-strong intake in the building.” And “working here is like being kidnapped. You are beaten down so much you get Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve worked through the night and all the next day and still not even been thanked.”

Still, at least they’re lucky enough to have jobs, and they’re handsomely paid for the hours they put in. Or not. “Salaries, if converted to an hourly rate, work out to be less than you’d earn at McDonalds.” Hmm. And you can, at least, get a decent cup of coffee at McDonalds, as opposed to one law firm where “coffee from the machine tastes like a beaver’s ass” and “our new biscuits look like they’ve been made from the dried grime you find around your sink hole in the bathroom. The taste isn’t far off that either.”

Are things really that bad? One lawyer rejoices in his firm’s location being “near a bridge I can throw myself off”. Another comes up with the rather more prosaic “I hate my life”. But lawyers are paid to be cynical, and most will grudgingly admit that things aren’t entirely awful. “The partners are excellent: understandable and approachable”. “Fantastic staff canteen, great support services.”
“Debauched quiz nights.”And “collegiate atmosphere and half-price cake in the café on a Friday”. So lawyers can indeed have their cake, but possibly not eat it too.

Matthew Rhodes is director of legal community website