Sunday, April 29, 2007

Time off for bad behaviour

You know what happens when a lawyer skips holidays? It builds up. First the little pressures - he starts hoarding paperclips, or building a tower out of used ring binders. Then he stops bathing regularly, maybe forgets to change his suit. He starts putting typos into documents he's asking people to read, you know, just for fun. 

Then he finally snaps. In this country, we're generally spared the sight of fat, sweaty couldn't-make-partner seniors stalking the corridors of our firms with loaded semiautomatics, but you can always tell when they've reached the same mental state as would cause a U.S. postman to reach for the gun cupboard. It's in their eyes, in the glazed response to questions, the tick-tock drumming of their pen on the desk, the growing pile of unlooked-at papers - and it always ends in tears, usually those of the secretary who has to keep up appearances and sweep away the debris.

Can't stress enough - taking holidays is really, really important. So why don't we do it?

It's certainly not that we aren't entitled. Yes, in the UK we have a miserly eight public holidays a year. Our more religious neighbours enjoy the benefit of Saints' festivals and such to bolster this number: Italy currently leads the field, the perk of Roman citizenship in the twenty-first century being sixteen days that can cheerfully be given over to church, family, the consumption of Frascati and the other delights of the peninsular. Even the famously put-upon Americans get ten, if they take them. 

But in the City, our masters tend to allow us a relatively generous 20-30 days' holiday, which then accumulates at the glacial rate of one a year. So if you stay with the firm you trained with, by senior associate level you have about a month and a half every year to spend in the rehabilitation clinic of your choice. 

That said, who takes their full holiday entitlement? I guess it depends on the firm's culture - but based on a careful study* carried out a few weeks ago, most people end up with five days to a week untaken by the end of the year. And this is at London firms, where people are at least encouraged to take their holidays. The worst stories emanate from across the Atlantic, where a quarter of all workers are reported to take no holiday at all each year. 

So the fightback starts here. Take some time off. Go spend it with your family, your dog, whoever. Sit in a basement writing blog posts. Tear up unstamped share transfer forms while squatting naked in front of a log fire. Whatever floats your boat. 

But take your holidays. Or one day your colleagues will regret it.

*(at a party, asking a bunch of drunken friends from a cross-section of firms)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A tale of two jurisdictions

A friend alerted me to the following post on Legal Week:

“I am a third-seat trainee with a top 10 City firm. I am Chinese and have done Chinese law in China, followed by the LLM with a good university in the UK and GDL and LPC in London with BPP Law School. I am about to qualify into either banking or corporate.

My dilemma is whether to stay in the UK with my current firm or apply to another practice in China - perhaps Hong Kong or Shanghai - upon qualification. I thoroughly enjoy the UK lifestyle but have a feeling my career prospects might be better over in China, even though I realise making partner will not be easy.”

This raises some issues rather close to Beefeater’s heart. I’ll get back to giving my view on the question in a moment, but first some background.
The PRC has a far less developed legal market than does the UK or Hong Kong, which is not surprising since the rule of law (as opposed to arbitrary decision making) only became government policy about thirty years ago. There remains some doubt as to the proper translation of the term ‘Rule of Law’: 依法治国 against 以法制国, which denote, broadly, ‘relying on the law to govern the country’ and ‘controlling the country by means of the laws’. Until fairly recently, it’s fair to say that the latter interpretation was correct in most cases – which meant that lawyers were public functionaries, rather than private professionals.

That has some profound implications for law firms operating in the PRC. 

First, lawyers don’t yet form a prestigious professional class in the PRC in the same way as in more sophisticated legal markets. Instead they fall between the stools of the old bureaucracy of officials, which still exercises political control, and the new plutocracy of bankers and businesspeople which drives the economy. They therefore command less respect from clients than their foreign counterparts.

Second, the tendency to view lawyers as functionaries makes them much more of a resource than in international firms, especially at junior levels – don’t even whisper the phrase ‘work-life balance’. Training is therefore secondary to billing. This is somewhat true of US firms as well (although on a different order of magnitude), but my impression has been that UK and Hong Kong firms generally make more of an effort to develop and nurture their lawyers.

Third, PRC clients have grown up viewing the law not as a set of rules that must be followed in all cases, but as a set of guidelines that one ought to have regard to, and they can give little weight to the lawyer’s traditional job of interpreting and applying the law. As a result it’s not unknown for PRC clients to put more pressure than, say, UK or US clients on their lawyers to give the ‘helpful’ answer to a ‘can we do this’ question rather than the legally correct answer. 

Fourth, because the law hasn’t yet established itself as an impartial set of rules which everyone can trust, it can’t fulfil the function it fulfils in older jurisdictions of partly dispensing with the need for good faith between contracting parties. This leaves a gap, and the law can offer relatively little protection in China against a counterparty which enters into a contract with no intention of performing it. Knowing how to obtain and enforce a judgment therefore requires skills which are as much social and commercial as legal.

Back to the issue of where the questioner should qualify: it depends on what kind of lawyer he or she wants to be. PRC firms will make you as much of a businessman as a lawyer and you can expect early partnership, but this generally comes at the cost of being a less good technical lawyer. Good UK and US firms are more satisfying places to be a technically good lawyer and your clients will treat you with more respect, but it is a slower (if better paid) route to that elusive equity stake.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


You asked me to work some changes into a document for you a couple of days ago.

Let's talk about that.

Non-legal readers may wonder why a qualified lawyer is needed to make changes to this document.

Well, the trainees are mostly occupied doing menial tasks - bless their socks - for a partner who is higher up the pecking order than you are. Your secretary could probably put through a couple of the basic changes but unaccountably she left at half past five and the one night secretary on the floor is busy handling work for - you guessed it - those same senior partners. Doc Centre has refused to work with you since 1998 on account of your bizarre scrawl.

That leaves me.

I'm the obvious choice really. Because I have some background on the matter -thanks for taking me to that meeting - I can pick up the points you meant to put in, the comments you almost mentioned, and the devastating analysis that you swore you wrote on the document but which you actually absently doodled onto a stray piece of paper that you won't discover until you open your Telegraph on the train back to the Home Counties tonight. I can do it quicker, cheaper, and faster than any other practical alternative.

That's not saying much.

First, I guess I skipped the cryptography classes at law school. As the Americans would say, strike one. The initial forty pages of comments read like Linear B. I mean I tried my Greek primer but it's got nothin', and the bit of the Rosetta stone dealing with completion mechanics must have dropped off before the British Museum got hold of it.

Never mind, let's say I decode that. Then we hit the Warranties. You certainly let them have it with both barrels! At least, I think you did. Your by-hand amendments run joyfully across the page. They leap, they turn, they twist. They frolic between lines, curl against corners, shoot off at 170 degrees and then, with a cheeky and knowing glance, they duck around the page to continue overleaf. Sometimes they are large, bestriding the carve-outs like colossi. Sometimes they are small and crabbed, skulking between riders that you've made on separate pages.

I think that that section you wrote on page 56 was in Arabic. But it's hard to tell, since it's crossed out, marked up, lined down, cross-referenced against a section written in block capitals in rider 64B1 and double-cross-referenced back to clause 19 of the version you used in That-Matter-No-Don't-Tell-Me-It's-On-The-Tip-Of-My-Tongue-Anyway-It-Was-About-The-Same-As-This-One-But-Better.

And clients have a problem with the hours juniors work.

Bite me.

Friday, April 13, 2007


The first time I tried to write a legal blog, it fell into the swamp, more or less. This is not altogether surprising - writing anything worth reading requires a kind of sustained effort that my brain-stem associates with hours spent in front of my office computer, with the result that exerting the grey cells outside working hours leads pretty well instantly to a total shutdown. There is also the little matter that the minutiae of life as a junior at a large City law firm hardly makes for thrilling copy.

The second attempt fell into the swamp too. I'd tried to shy away from ripping yarns involving photocopiers and mis-filed bundles by making a more personal record. This showed some brief promise, but ultimately foundered - principally because the tangled weaving involved in writing any kind of record without alerting two simultaneous girlfriends to their simultaneity proved beyond me.

So why try again? Aren't there hundreds of UK City Law blawgs (legal blogs, for those unfamiliar with this clumsy term) by now?

Well, not really, as far as I can tell. So far I've only seen one London blawg by a UK corporate lawyer, namely the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Corporate Blawg UK , and a few blogs by IT-literate barristers and suchlike. These are drops in the ocean of blogs maintained by student lawyers and other pinkoes and fellow-travellers, some of whom seem disturbingly willing to put sensitive information about themselves on public record.

So we'll see where this goes. Shunt that SPA onto one side, grab a coffee, ignore the trainee hovering nervously outside your office and enjoy the ride. But wear your swamp boots, just in case.