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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Get Back to Work Already!

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Lawyers work pretty hard. But some people seem to think that there is no amount of time in the office that could ever be enough…

sleeping at desk

If you have read the sample chapters of In Practice, you’ll have seen very quickly that Uncle Andrew can be a bit of a pain.

One area that he’s particularly painful about is work hours.

In fact, his theory is that Thomas should be seen in the office at all hours of the day. The fiction of work/life balance hasn’t yet seeped into Uncle Andrew’s thinking, and so in his efforts to mentor Thomas towards a successful legal career, he has some guiding counsel for Thomas.

The Lie of Work/Life Balance?

As you’ll see, Andrew has a theory about work/life balance and about working hours in the office. It’s quite simple: if you want to succeed, you need to be seen.

Is he right? How does promotion and position work in your firm? Does the advancement of those around you seem to align with the policies of the firm about working hours?

Do you have set office hours? How does that compare to the hours you actually work?

While these questions are bubbling around in your head… let’s see what Uncle Andrew has to say.

The Issue of your Work Hours

My Dear Thomas,

Thank you for delivering your written, if brief, report on your activities to me.  Another day I might write to you about the use of the English language, and how you might go about applying it to your reports instead of using whatever it was that you were endeavouring to use in your letter.

For now, however, I wanted to draw your attention to an immediate problem in your career that, if allowed to continue unchecked, is likely to ruin you from the beginning.  It is the issue of your work hours.

I see that the firm you have started with has encouraged you to leave “right on 5:00pm” as if, somehow, they are doing you a favour in making that suggestion.

You have further indicated that this is the situation because “at first” you will not likely have too much work to do until they have built up your workload.

Whatever benevolent reason your firm may have for this directive, it is misconceived.  It is well known to me and your parents that the lawyers who advance the fastest are those who spend the most time in the office.

Here is what is happening when you leave at 5:00pm as invited: everybody else is still there.  And so, on the one hand, we have those around you who are seen to be busy, productive, and present in the office at all times.  They are available for the inevitable urgent calls that come in after hours, and when the senior partners walk around the office towards the end of the day, they will see who is there.

And what will they see when they get to your desk?  Nothing.

They will not see you, because you are not there.  In fact, not only will they not see you but they will likely never even realise who you are.  If you were in charge of the allocation of complex work or decisions regarding promotions, ask yourself this: would you promote somebody that you couldn’t identify?  Of course not.

Instead, promotions and quality work will be given out to those who are studiously at their desks or actively in the office at all hours of the day.

You will inevitably suggest that the lack of work at the present time is somehow connected to your early departure from the office.  That is, of course, irrelevant.

So that you are not deceived, you may take the truth as this: you must be present in the office for at least as many hours a day as the senior partners in your firm are.  Your lack of work to do makes no difference.  If you need to occupy yourself with what has become known as “busy work” then you should do so.  If need be you can ultimately replace that with actual work, but really it doesn’t matter for the purposes of achieving our particular goal at this time.  The point of the exercise is not that you are actually doing anything so much as it is that you are seen to be working hard in the office.

Since we have started on the concept of capacity for work, however, you should also remember that when asked about your capacity for work, you must always indicate that you are quite busy, but could take on a little more.

Do not stop to consider the precise accuracy of the statement in a given situation.  The point is not to be precise in your answer, but to make it clear that first, you are in demand and therefore busy, but next that you are able to provide more value through taking on additional tasks if required.

The statement is, of course, subjective and therefore it is not untruthful in any given circumstances, in case you were concerned about that.

For these reasons you may politely discard the “invitation” to leave at 5:00pm.  Your presence in the office is important.

As a final note, in researching the firm in which you now find yourself and the issue that I have addressed in this letter, I have noticed that they promote themselves as having “work/life balance”.

That phrase is, of course, a polite fiction.  A perfectly civil and politically correct one, to be sure.  Indeed if the firm did not promote their working conditions using that description, they would find themselves isolated from the greater legal community as perhaps the only firm in the country who did not do so.

This is where you need to carefully consider what is being put forward here.  “Work/life balance” is a phrase which has no identifiable meaning.  Picture some scales, if you can (the kind your grandmother uses with a fulcrum in the middle and balanced weights on either side).  All “work/life balance” means is that both sides of the scales are even.  Now this can be achieved in a number of ways.  Think of your work as a large weight on the one side.  Then picture 50 other, much smaller, weights.  It is those which sit on the other side, balancing out the scales against your work.

And that is how it is with the “work/life” balance that your firm promotes, and you should adopt.  The “work” component forms, of itself, a disproportionate weight towards how you should be allocating your time.  The balance of your activities, when added together, will ultimately take a similar proportion of your time and energy.  However, work is the predominate factor in your life, and given how long your career will be you had best get used to thinking that way now.

I look forward to your next report. If you would confirm that you have understood my points about office hours, I would be obliged.

Yours in retirement,

Uncle Andrew.

What do You Think?

So – is Uncle Andrew just a sadist? Or is his point well made – is it actually those who just hang around who are perceived to be the hardest workers?

What about “work/life balance” – is it real? Should aspire to it? Or is it just a nonsense spouted by firms who know they can’t say anything different and still convince people to work for them?

Let me know in the comments!

If you want to find out about Andrew and Thomas’ full journey together, don’t forget to pick up your copy of In Practice – Moving Beyond Law School Theory.

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    • Uncle Andrew is a sadist and Thomas should consider a career change before the firm turns him into a sadist too.

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