But for many, like a draining romance, their relationship with their employers was complicated.
One young lawyer was lured to a top-tier firm because of their pitch that working for them would help him become the best lawyer he could be, which is something he believes is still “a genuine thing that the firm can deliver”.
But when juniors feel the promises that lured them through the door are no more than spin, the rosiness fades.
Long hours, fast turnarounds
The Financial Review granted anonymity to the 34 young lawyers working at top-tier firms including Clayton Utz, Allens, King & Wood Mallesons, Herbert Smith Freehills and Gilbert + Tobin because they feared their careers might be affected if they spoke publicly.
Working past midnight, weekends and sometimes 13-14 hour days, was common. However, people reported different experiences. A “typical” week varied depending on their firm, team and practice area.
Those who worked for clients being investigated by the royal commission said fast turnarounds were a major cause of exhaustion.
Clients could ask at 3pm for their lawyers to produce something by 9am the next day – a task which involved staying past midnight or even overnight to meticulously review thousands of documents.
Firms tried different things to help mitigate burnout. Respondents said Mallesons made a roster for royal commission weekend work to help share the load while Clayton Utz gave time in lieu to those who worked ‘insane’ hours.
Long hours were an issue even for those who didn’t work on the royal commission.
One young lawyer said it was ironic they were filling out the Financial Review survey while still at work at 11.20pm on a Monday after working a 16-hour day and all weekend.
“Across all the law firms – and this isn’t just a Mallesons problem, or a Freehills problem, or an Allens problem – but there is just a desire to please the client at whatever cost,” another young lawyer working for a top-tier law firm said.
“I think there is a reluctance for people, especially at the partnership level, to manage those expectations. And the people who bear the brunt of that I think are the juniors.”
He’d signed up to “work hard”, but being pulled away from a family Christmas lunch and having to cancel numerous date nights with his partner were major pain points.
“That goodwill only extends so far. Once I feel I’m being exploited, then that ‘quid pro quo’ dynamic changes. And lawyers sort of check out. That’s why you see a lot of junior lawyers resign after two or three years. They’ve seen how the system works … and they leave.”
One young Freehills lawyer said the sense they were dispensable triggered a crisis of confidence that made it difficult for them to continue.
“In my first year, it sort of dawned on me, that like, ‘OK, my firm literally doesn’t care about me. They don’t give a shit about my personal life’. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow,” they said.
Another young lawyer at Mallesons said although he rarely left work before 8.30pm and all-nighters were sometimes necessary, he appreciated the pressures faced by his partners.
“We’re not in an industry where we can safely push back on client demands. They’ve got a million other suitors, and I think there is a justified fear among the firm, and we’ve seen it happen, that if you don’t service those client needs they’re going to go elsewhere.”
However, he said partners have at-home offices, higher salaries and car spaces at their CBD offices to cushion the workload.
Junior lawyers at top-tier firms navigate work and life pressures on lesser incomes of about $80,000-$85,000. The amount is tiered to reflect experience and is certainly a generous sum by graduate salary standards, but its value diminishes relative to hours worked.
“I think there’s a public perception that we’re paid a lot more than we actually are considering the amount of hours that we do,” one said.
Where firms could improve
The Financial Review asked the 34 young corporate lawyers to rank which workplace policies would most improve their lives.
The top three policies in terms of importance were better hours, better pay for overtime and more leave options.
The bottom three policies included ‘perks’ like free tickets to the theatre and gigs, firm-funded social events and adventurous team-building days and firm-produced media such as podcasts or blogs.
One young lawyer said simple things like partners not sending harsh, all-staff emails to juniors criticising tiny mistakes, or simply checking in with how they’re coping would improve his workplace.
But longer term, curbing bloated hours and not letting clients get away with unreasonable demands was a priority, he said.
Many want to stay in their jobs but are torn. In the US, a consulting and coaching industry has sprung up specialising in helping corporate lawyers quit their jobs.
“As soon as I feel like I’m being exploited, and the dynamic changes, that’s when my colleagues and I – and this is definitely how it works – as soon as that ethos changes, then people will look for outs. Just today, somebody resigned because they didn’t feel like they were getting the education that they wanted,” the young lawyer said.
“And it makes complete sense. You’ve come from at least five years of university, you’re conditioned to learn and want to advance, and as soon as you feel like you’re not getting that, you tap out.”
The insight into working conditions for young corporate lawyers comes amid two workplace safety complaints against King & Wood Mallesons in Melbourne and Gilbert + Tobin in Sydney.
A complaint filed to SafeWork by a senior lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin observed that some junior lawyers slept in the office and took stimulants to keep up with the demands of the job.
The complainant feared the “extreme” working conditions had reached a “point someone will die or have some other physical or mental health episode”.
Gilbert + Tobin lawyers slept in the office more than one night a week – “60-80 nights per year” – and when they needed to stay awake, junior lawyers “abuse[d] supplements and drugs in the banking and corporate team” to “keep up with demands,” the former Gilbert + Tobin solicitor said in their statement to SafeWork on November 4, 2018.
Gilbert and Tobin said: “G+T remain focused on the health and wellbeing of our people. We have put in place a number of processes to ensure that our people feel empowered and supported working at G+T, so that they can proactively manage their work in a flexible way, while delivering for our clients.”
Meanwhile, a junior lawyer anonymously tipped off the Victorian workplace safety regulator about King & Wood Mallesons for overworking staff to meet banking royal commission deadlines.
Three months before the Mallesons complaint, a lawyer and close observer of the banking royal commission, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Financial Review, said “someone might die” from overwork at one of the firms responsible for advising the various banks, super funds and financial advisors being investigated by the royal commission.
These complaints clearly represent the extreme end of the spectrum – but they are indicative of broader concerns as the Financial Review’s survey of young lawyers reveals.
One young lawyer said real change to working conditions “couldn’t really come from the firms themselves” due to a race-to-the-bottom commercial incentive on partners to compete with other top-tier firms and smaller players vying for clients and legal work.
“You’d have to put regulations on legal work that’s done after a certain time of day,” he said.
“We all record our time using software. If that software captured when you were recording that time and there was an added surcharge to the client for that work after 6pm, 8pm – like a taxi surcharge – and that was industry wide, and you couldn’t offer discounts on it under Law Society rules, then that would deter clients for asking for shit they don’t need.”
Edwin Montoya Zorrilla, 27, a spokesman for The Legal Forecast, a not-for-profit group that provide support for students and early-career lawyers, says the onus should shift from individuals to a more co-ordinated solution between firms and other independent bodies.
“It’s seen as more of an individual pressure of what you can do to improve your career,” he said. “But then there’s very little time to actually address how lawyers actually feel until we reach this kind of critical tipping point, which is what happened for some people during the royal commission.”
Mr Zorrilla said lawyers of all ages, no matter how diligent, also have a fear or being perceived as ‘lazy’ if they say they’re struggling.
The Minds Count Foundation, founded in 2008, have already initiated difficult conversations about how lawyers need space to speak honestly about their experiences, and how a culture of stoicism is especially harmful for perfectionist over-achievers not good at asking for help.
Allens, Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and Mallesons are all signatories to the recommended guidelines for protecting and promoting good staff mental health.
Conversations are under way. Further, many partners are not only aware of these issues, but experienced them as junior lawyers. But the worksafe complaints combined with the findings of the AFR young lawyer survey suggest there’s still a way to go between aspirations and day-to-day life for many junior lawyers working in top-tier firms.