A spectre is haunting law firms — the spectre of #NewLaw.
There are three things every law firm associate hates: long hours, working on weekends, and their boss. Oh, you think your junior does not hate you? Oh, ok.
Here is the low-down on the traditional law firm:
1) Partners who own the firm make money by selling associates’ labour.
2) Partners sell associates’ labour by billing clients by the hour.
3) Partners pay associates’ fixed salaries regardless of overtime (but they do, sometimes, pay bonuses).
4) At least in Ontario, Canada, statutory employment standards with respect to hours, minimum wage, overtime pay, public holidays, and vacation with pay do not apply to lawyers.
THIS IS A BAD MIX.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with each of the facts above. But together they make for a terrible combination that makes most junior associates’ lives miserable. If you are familiar with the industry, you know what actual harm young lawyers suffer. I am not going to go into that.
The purpose of this piece is not to prove that there is a problem. The purpose of this piece is to give actionable advice to law firms who know there is a problem.
1) Cancel office hours. Unless you are a retail firm that depends on walk-ins, never ask your associates to obey office hours. In fact, never ask your associates to come into the office, period. They are lawyers, they are online, hopefully, and they can respect their own appointments with clients or court dates. They can also work from anywhere if you set the practice up right. And if your law firm depends on walk-ins, it’s just wrong because you’re not McDonalds. What’s next: a drive-in law firm?
The worst is starting hours. Making your juniors show up at the office at 9 or any other hour is bad. You just created an arbitrary deadline for your lawyers EVERY morning. As if they don’t have enough deadlines already.
Office hours or face time are not worth it. Being able to pop in your junior’s office with a question or a task is a bad reason for office hours/face time. You are interrupting when you pop in. Lawyers work on high-stakes, high-complexity issues. They need flow. If your firm is different and your lawyers work on repetitive, simple tasks, do not read further. You will be replaced with an automated or commoditized solution within five years. If your firm has not yet mastered working through the cloud or at least assigning work through digital tools, your firm will be out of business within the next ten years.
2) Do not print out every damn email. Seriously, I know there are firms that print out every email and put them in a folder in a filing cabinet somewhere. If your email system does not support e-discovery, quick search and tagging (Google’s gsuite, business edition does this), just close down shop and do something else, please. Maybe go into a recycling business.
Paperful office penalizes clients and lawyers with higher costs, increases the risk of data loss or privacy breach, and makes millennials sad.
It is NOT necessary to print out emails for storage under any reasonable evidence statute (check your jurisdiction—maybe you live in Loompa Land or something). They are originally digital documents and you can generate authentic paper copies on demand (also how often do opposing counsel dispute authenticity of your emails?).
Ask me how to prepare court documents in a completely digital form for instant printing, binding, and filing. Honestly, it’s easy. If your associates are working the Xerox, something is wrong.
3) Stop exploiting your associates.I know it makes you rich but it makes you poorer in the long run. You boost chances of error, you are not making any friends, you are not building a great firm.
Survival through the traditional junior years and making partner does not make the best lawyers. It makes bitter lawyers who have sacrificed so much that they are mostly trying to compensate for that.
If you are thinking about building a law firm, try a different approach.
Go out of your way to make your associates forget they have a job. Convince them they are partners in a meaningful enterprise. If all you can think about is how much more notice you will have to give them if you keep them around longer than usual, forget it. I am not talking to you. I am talking to those of us who want to build law firms that clients love, that judges love, that the public or the business community love.
Times have changed. The best people will not necessarily work for you on old terms any more. There are alternatives including bailing out on law practice altogether. Or building an independent boutique small practice (talk to me if you want to do this). It’s much, much easier to start and run a successful, effective law firm now than ten years ago. Many law firms will not have associates at all and many would-be associates will simply have their own independent practices. Traditional law firms, take note.