“We don’t run this place as a holiday camp … We expect our people to treat the client as if they were God and to put themselves out for clients. You don’t say ‘Sorry I can’t do it, I’m playing cricket on the weekend’… You don’t have a right to any free time…”

Believe it or not, this extraordinary statement was made only three years ago, by Tom Poulton, the Managing Partner of one of Australia’s most prestigious law firms, the Melbourne based Allens Arthur Robinson. And if a new piece of research from Melbourne University’s Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law is accurate, it reflects the workplace culture of many law firms around Australia today.

The report focuses on working patterns in Melbourne law firms, but many of these firms are national and the workplace culture is no different in other large centres like Sydney and Brisbane.

Titled The Elephant in the Room, the research by Iain Campbell, Jenny Malone and Sara Charlesworth concludes that law firms still discriminate against women and that those who work in them have little control over their work environment.

“Although solicitors are competent professionals, trained in advocacy and negotiation skills, the somewhat paradoxical result of the current system is that most are unable to assert control over the basic features of their own working time. Solicitors are caught up in a system that appears remarkably hostile to employee choice and employee-oriented flexibility,” this report concludes.

For women the culture of unrelenting work and long hours is inevitably discriminatory, the paper argues. And despite the rhetoric from law firms about them being family friendly, the reality is vastly different. “Although many law firms present themselves as ‘lifestyle’ firms, most are more accurately described as ‘family hostile’ than as ‘family-friendly’, insistent on long hours and resistant to demands for reduced hours that could more easily accommodate family responsibilities,” the paper says.

This paper is peppered with horrific anecdotes. One interviewee, ‘Rachel’, describes what happened to her when she was pregnant:

I couldn’t get into work sometimes until 10 o’clock because I’d have to get off the tram several times and throw up. And I’d still get my work done. I’d be in there till late or bring stuff home and be working on weekends a lot. But I remember one time when I was in at work and it was probably 9 o’clock at night and I was feeling so ill and very tired and quite heavily pregnant and one of the partners walked past my office and he came back and he goes: “Hey, good to see your baby doesn’t hold you back from having a good work ethic”. At which point I got up and grabbed his shirt and told him what I thought of him.

So why are law firms so unrelenting? Because of the obsession with making money – why else? Lawyers charge out through a system called billable hours and the more billable hours done, the higher the fees. It is through this mechanism that law firms can control the lives of their employees. And then there are demanding corporate clients who expect lawyers to turn work around at lightning speed because these businesses operate on a 24-hour clock.

There may not be much community sympathy for well-paid lawyers, but no workplace should risk the mental and physical health of its employees, whether it is a large CBD law firm or a sweatshop in the suburbs.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey