Fee-Earner/Fee-Burner Divide Widens at McCague Borlack

I’m in Saskatoon today so this is a short blog – but an important one nonetheless.

Today’s Toronto Star breaks the story of Toronto law firm, McCague Borlack (which recently entered into a two-year alliance with British firm DAC Beachcroft which may eventually lead to a merger) and its attempt to stop what name partner Howard Borlack claims is abuse by some clerical or secretarial staff at his firm. The Star quotes Borlack “Some people were abusing the system….We had people taking two to three hours for lunch and we had no way of knowing. . . . Some people were complaining.”

In response to these complaints, the firm is instituting a new security system that, according to The Star, “will require staff (except lawyers who spend much of their time with clients) to clock in and out of the office with a finger swipe.”

Notice that this security system applies only to staff – not to lawyers. Nice.

Last year, Stephen Mayson made some strong comments in Legal Futures on the way that some law firms create a distinction between fee-earners and support staff. He called such a distinction “horrendous”, “insulting” and a barrier to recruiting the best people.

Louise Restell on the Quality Solicitors blog picked up on this saying:

I have no idea whether this superiority complex comes from their legal training or whether it’s just that people with a strong sense of their own importance become lawyers, but it manifests itself in that objectionable habit of calling every non-lawyer in a firm ‘support staff’. So nefarious is this practice I have even seen the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide referred to as ‘fee earner’ and ‘fee burner’. A nice way of making your staff feel valued and motivated.

They are both correct.

Ham-fisted decisions like the McCague Borlack security system tar the entire profession.

And lawyers wonder why the general public sees us as arrogant and unlikeable.


  1. Mitch – Excellent points.

    Based on my firm administrator days I can venture a guess at the specifics. One (or maybe two) staff people were taking long lunches. The lawyers, afraid to confront the offenders, decided to address the problem with a new policy – leading to the clock-in and out scenario.

    This is, or course, a lowest common denominator management approach. Instead of directly addressing the people at the low end of the productivity spectrum, punishing everyone will drive them all down to that level.

    Lawyers are too often very poor managers. When it comes to staff they avoid confrontation – leading to these poor decisions.

    Thanks for shining a light on it.

  2. Toby- I agree. Many believe that being a lawyer automatically qualifies you as an expert in running a business…..

    Observer – please have the courage to use your real name if you are going to comment on this blog. When you do, you are free to provide the additional facts that The Star missed.

  3. Karen Dunn Skinner

    You’re right – this is a toxic combination of bad management and big ego…and really bad press. Swipe cards, common for entry into many firms, accomplish the same thing (although probably easier to scam) but don’t have the unpleasant optic of fingerprint scanning.

    And now I’m very curious about what “Observer” had to say.


  4. swipe cards indeed have the same info but are only operative for entry after hours but I have no idea why it isn’t standard practice for lawyers and staff to let reception know when they are in or out of the office. Unfortunately lawyers are surprisingly horrible at discipliniing poor performers be they lawyers or staff and are far more comfortable with making rules. This is a shining example of how that can back fire

  5. People need to understand that the scanning system proposed could not work for lawyers at the firm which is probably why it’s not being implemented for them. Mccague Borlack is a litigation firm where it’s lawyers would be out of the office on most days conducting depositions, participating in mediations, motions, pretrial, trials, etc. What would be the point of having them account for their time in the office if they are hardly there? The lawyers must account for themselves by their billable hours. People need to understand what they are commenting on before they judge the conduct of others.

  6. Don,

    I’m a lawyer and I fully understand what I’m commenting on. I also know, as I am sure you do as well, that billable hours are notoriously inaccurate unless each lawyer uses a stop watch and immediately writes down the time spent – and none do. We’ll leave aside the issue of lawyers doing their time sheets at the end of the day, week or month and liberally recreating the actual time spent on files.

    The real point is that treating staff like chattels by using a fingerprinting system that tracks every time they leave their desk, is vile and disgusting.

    I’m surprised that no lawyers at the firm have stepped up and challenged this policy. This speaks volumes and will impact that firm’s ability to retain and attract talent.

    It may also impact the proposed merger with DAC Beachcroft.

  7. Gary,

    I agree with almost everything you write, with the following exception. Swipe cards are not “only operative for entry after hours.”

    Swipe cards were in use for access at all times of day when I worked for a magic circle firm in London, England, in the late 90s.

    Further, a swipe card is often required when accessing offices from common areas (for example, getting to the offices from the reception areas or meeting rooms) or otherwise open to the public (think of non-client washrooms located in the stairwells of office towers).

    The data from those cards can be used to track movement throughout the day.

    I’ve never heard of lawyers (partners or otherwise) being exempt from having to such carry swipe cards… Why should fingerprint reading be any different.

    This is a poorly conceived response to rather simple problem and signifies a very bad management decision that further drives a wedge between lawyers and the many people who support their practice. Perpetuating an “us/them” culture does nothing to improve the already poor image of a profession in significant trouble.

  8. How is this different from the time clock systems that are used in many blue-collar, retail, and service-industry workplaces? I’ve had to “clock in” and “clock out” at many of my less-illustrious jobs over the years and I never felt like “chattel”. If you’re paying someone to be at work from 9 to 5, there’s nothing wrong with making sure they’re actually at work during those hours. The use of fingerprint s seems weird, though.

  9. I couldn’t help noticing that the McCague Borlack website has an announcement that they are hiring…apparently, they have 7 positions available for legal assistants. Hmmm…I can’t think why??!!!

  10. Karen Dunn Skinner

    Alex, I don’t think it would be unusual…if it applied to everyone. By exempting lawyers, it only reinforces the “superiority divide” between lawyers and everyone else in the firm. As Jackie S. implies, it seems MB already has a few problems on that front.

    And as for choosing fingerprinting…I expect that’s a case of the managing partner falling in love with a shiny new toy.

  11. Please note that the fingerprinting program is not for security reasons; that’s a red herring. Howard Borlack emphatically stated tht is was not about security at all, at the meeting with 50 of us on October 2nd! He then proffers the “security theme” for the first time to the STAR on November 1st. [Ed. note: some material removed.] All clerks and paralegals are also exempt completely, and they are paid by salary, like the secretaries (but at a higher wage). Why are they are exempt? [Ed. note: some material removed.] Borlack never disclosed how people were to be singled out, ever. Tell us what you think. Join us on FACEBOOK. Linkd to http://www.fingercampaign.co. Thank you.