Applying firm pressure

A few weeks ago, whilst mired in revision, I read a post by the legal blogging Grandmaster, Charon QC. This post was another episode of his Muttley Dastardly LLP series, which depicts a law firm with a sinister ethos. The firm is interviewing for a new trainee.

The post begins with this scene-setting paragraph:

Eva Braun, Matt Muttley’s PA, elegantly dressed as always in a tailored black suit and high heels,  led a young man into the Partner’s Boardoom and seated him at the opposite end of the long boardroom table.  He had a brown paper bag over his head.

It’s a brilliant piece, very well-written and very imaginative. But is it that far from the truth? Clearly, there are no firms that interview their candidates with paper bags over their heads as if they’re in Guantanamo Bay. But there are a number who interrogate rather than interview.

Reading through the graduate recruitment literature in print and online, there are lists of the exercises used by each firm when they are recruiting their trainees. The lists, though, are only helpful up to a point; writing “written assessment” is no more useful than saying “bring a pen” – it doesn’t give any information about what kind of written assessment candidates will be required to complete.

The same principle applies to the word “interview”.  Notwithstanding the fact that some firms conduct preliminary interviews over the telephone and these are a sufficiently different animal that they are deserving of the denotation “phone interview” in the recruitment exercise lists, interviews can vary from firm to firm.

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. Each firm is entitled to conduct itself and its recruitment in whatever fashion it desires. However, some of these fashions suit certain people better than others.

I have heard many horror stories about firms and their interview or assessment procedures. One person told me of a medium-sized firm which invited her and her fellow interviewees to wait in a room for the day to begin, and were left there for nearly 3 hours before anyone came to get them. Another friend tells me of the firm at which she was greeted with a chair not dissimilar to the one pictured above, which was facing 5 partners who proceeded to grill her like a suspect in a criminal trial. These two firms had one thing in common; they left my friends with the feeling that they wouldn’t accept a place there even if the firm begged them to take it.

For certain candidates, such as my friends, being treated in a certain way will be a ‘dealbreaker’ when it comes to the firm. Some people simply believe that a firm which feels that placing that kind of pressure on its candidates is the way to get the best out of them is not going to be the right fit. That does not mean that these applicants are incapable of handling the pressure, rather that it gives an indication of an attitude that may put certain people off.

Again, this is absolutely fine – there are plenty who would relish that challenge and not see it as a problem. But the information available is so scarce that candidates often do not know whether the firms they are applying to are the interrogating type or not. For applicants for whom the terror suspect method of interviewing is a definite no-no, this could potentially involve a serious waste of time on an application and interview preparation.

There isn’t even an easy way to tell – I know someone who interviewed at a rottweiler-esque litigation firm, who was expecting one of these very tough days. They were put through one of the friendliest assessment days they had experienced. Another friend interviewed at a local firm expecting a cheery smile and a nice chat, and got something very different. There is just no way of telling without the actual knowledge.

As I explained in a previous post, it is vital to choose firms you wish to apply to with care because the applications are so lengthy and require so much time and effort. If a candidate is going to rule out firms who conduct their assessments in a particular manner and choose not to accept any offers they may receive from such a firm, then the time spent doing those applications is time that was wasted.

The Muttley Dastardly LLP post, fictional and exaggerated though it may have been, contained the truth insofar as it showed that there are candidates who thrive on the pressure of being challenged. Any prospective barrister will contend with interviews conducted on that very basis. Given, though, that there is such a breadth of styles in the solicitor branch of the profession, it would be helpful for applicants to have more of an idea of assessments before the application form is filled in. Choosing a firm carefully is far easier if an individual is in possession of all the relevant facts. It seems that, as long as there are certain applicants who would be dissuaded from applying by a particular atmosphere created during interviews and assessments, not indicating this atmosphere is akin to not providing prospective trainees with the full information on which to base a decision.

Flom-ergasted: Reflections On Sad News

I read a blogpost this week that was so moving that I had to write about it myself. The post comes from the Above The Law website, and tells of the untimely death of an associate at a US law firm from a heart attack. The associate in question was just 32 years old.

The post tells the cautionary tale of the pressure that associates can be placed under to fulfil their required ‘hours billed’ targets, and the high attrition rates this leads to. I advise everyone to read this post: In Re The Passing Of A Skadden Associate.

As a future law firm trainee, it is a story that sends chills down my spine. Yes it’s uncommon, yes I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for when I applied – I’ve seen the kinds of hours that members of my family and my friends spend at their offices – but it still shocks and saddens me.

The thought strikes me that the young woman in question was probably bristling with excitement when she found out she had passed the New York Bar exams and had secured a job at a top corporate law firm.

Now, that job she craved and dedicated her late-20s and early-30s to has contributed to the early ending of her life.

If anything good can come from this and the other stress-induced collapses that have occurred recently, it is that law firms may heed the lesson that the Above The Law article teaches. The poster writes:

…our team was addressed by the partner in charge of the case. He gave us the standard blah blah blah about taking care of ourselves and all that. But then he said (and I won’t forget this until the day I die): “You guys, you don’t have a thermostat. Nobody knows how far you can go before you blow.”

…[The partner was] reminding us that we ourselves don’t really know how much we can take, until maybe it’s too late.

It’s not a story that will affect me on a day-to-day basis, nor will it dissuade me from following the path that I have chosen. All who are applying for training contracts at the moment should already be aware that the life of a corporate lawyer can seem like a never-ending stream of hours, deadlines, instructions and meetings. That the pressure of work at some firms contributes to stress for the lawyer and those around them. That life as a solicitor is not a fairytale existence most of the time.

Writing for Guardian Law today, Alex Aldridge says that some firms have started to implement schemes designed to improve the balance between work and non-work in the lives of lawyers. But perhaps these have not gone far enough yet. There is a continuing trend of steady growth in the in-house legal sector in the UK at the moment, and an article published today on The Australian website shows that new graduates in the Land Down Under are shunning private practice in favour of working in-house. I know from my own work experience that the life of lawyers in private practice can be far more demanding in terms of control over hours and targets than it is in-house, although this can vary according to department, sector and seniority.

If this seems like a wistful blogpost, it is only because I read this story and could see a blank space for the name of both the lawyer and the firm, able to be filled by countless others across the world who work similar numbers of hours under similar amounts of pressure for similarly sustained periods of time. There is probably a degree of personal contribution to the stress levels, either by nature or diet or volunteering for extra work. But in general, any of the trainees who choose the corporate life could be leaving themselves open to an early demise.

It is a sobering thought for a 23-year-old prospective solicitor.

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