• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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When BigLaw’s mask slips

When BigLaw’s mask slips

Should we feel sorry for the US global law firm, Paul Hastings? It has come in for a lot of stick for a leaked training slide on how its junior lawyers should behave.

To recap, at an internal training event, a senior associate gave 10 rules (called ‘non-negotiable expectations’) to juniors. The two which stood out for me were:

‘You are ‘online’ 24/7. No exceptions, no excuses’, and

‘We are in the business of client service — you are the concierge at the Four Seasons, a waiter at Alinea. The client always comes first and is always right. If a client wants a mountain moved, we move it. No questions.’

There were other rules along the same lines, like:

‘Take ownership of everything you do. Once you touch a document/work stream, you own every mistake in it—fair or not’, and

‘WFH is a luxury. Don’t take advantage of it. Buy a full home setup (2 monitors, docking station, keyboard/mouse and a working phone) or come into the office. No poor connections. No excuses.’

There has been an inevitable online storm. Some say: what’s the problem if you work for BigLaw, this is the reality that you enter. Others see everything that is wrong with a culture structured to encourage burn-out, and also to discourage robust independent advice to a client.

Paul Hastings has issued a statement admitting the existence of the slide, but saying that ‘the views expressed do not reflect the views of the firm or its partners.’

You can take issue with the substance of the slides – and I do. But that is not my main concern. I worry about two things: the tone, and the omissions.

To deal first with the slides’ actual contents, and to cover points made by others, the rules make a mockery of big law firms’ supposed concerns about the welfare of their staff, their work-life balance and mental health. It may also be contrary to the law in those countries which give employees the legal right to disconnect after hours.

Should we be shocked that there is one message for the outside world, while the internal message is: mental health is for wimps.

Read also: Three tips for developing business as a young lawyer

Second, the-client-is-always-right rhetoric ignores the current difficult debate about what do when a client’s future actions threaten the public interest. The preamble to the American Bar Association’s own model rules states that:

‘In the nature of law practice, however, conflicting responsibilities are encountered. Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflict between a lawyer’s responsibilities to clients, to the legal system and to the lawyer’s own interest in remaining an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living.’

It seems that internally no such conflicting responsibilities are recognised – conflicting responsibilities are also for wimps. (And this criticism holds true even if the junior lawyers’ own so-called clients are, as the slide says, other associates and partners in the law firm.)

It would be possible to go on and on about these so-called non-negotiable expectations.

As I have said, what bothers me is not so much their actual content, although that raises problems, as their tone and what is missing from the content. Yes, they are threatening, but they also have two qualities which make an extremely dangerous combination: utter confidence, and a disregard for rounded lawyers’ values.

Utter confidence is nearly always dangerous in a lawyer. Even that statement should be qualified because it is stated with too much confidence. A lawyer usually balances options, possibilities and courses of action. Utter confidence may sometimes be the right course of action. But utter confidence is unlikely to persist over 10 rules of expected behaviour, here called ‘non-negotiable’. Non-negotiable! In a lawyer’s mind, the correct response to nearly everything should be: it depends on the circumstances.

The nearest thing one could say to being non-negotiable in a lawyer’s work is adherence to professional ethical values – and even that, as the ABA’s own text shows (cited above), cannot be expressed with utter confidence, for instance because of lawyers’ other duties.

And so we come to my second objection: the absence of sound ethical values themselves in the ten expectations. Isn’t it strange that they contain no specific professional ethical advice? There is ethical advice of sorts (although clothed in a commercial imperative, comparing a lawyer to a concierge at an expensive hotel or a waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant), but it is the wrong ethical advice. To repeat again, a lawyer, unlike a hotel concierge or restaurant waiter, owes important other duties.

Of course, a single training slide can be over-analysed, and it has been. Doubtless, the lawyer concerned would have said something different to the juniors if advised that the slide would leak. But the curtain has been pulled aside for a moment, and given us all an opportunity to peep.

Originally published by the Law Society Gazette