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Lawyers' work hours: Putting the "Human" in human resource

None of the factors discussed in this article which contribute to a toxic and expectation-heavy work culture are helping to motivate young lawyers to be better workers or to better their skills.

Bar & Bench

On a Saturday night, as most people gear up to have a night out or to meet a friend or curl up on the couch with pizza and a movie, litigating lawyers working at chambers are into the 73rd hour of a work week that regularly spans at least 72, even in the most favourable of circumstances.

Just as the clock strikes 7, an impossibly large file comprising the most illegible of documents and the most long-winded history, is casually dropped off on desk with that ever-so-dreaded phrase, “This needs to be filed first thing Monday morning.” The lawyer nods impassively and begins to unpack the belongings that she had started gathering in the naive hope that she would be getting out of office at 7 on a Saturday. She tells herself that it’s her fault for making plans to go meet some friends/grocery shopping lie around in bed all day, on a Sunday, without giving her boss advance notice of her ‘unavailability’.

She starts flipping through the unending file, telling herself that maybe she’ll be able to finish her work and still have some part of the one day a week that’s supposed to be hers, left to recuperate from another gruelling week so that she can do it all over again from Monday.

But really, these little lies that young lawyers tell themselves are only ways to escape the omniscient and sometimes overwhelming reality that if we decided to take a stand and ask for our time to be respected as our own, it wouldn’t take more than a week for someone else to replace us that can live with the situation as it is. It’s a system that when juxtaposed with the glamour surrounding the profession and the stakes involved, makes little sense.

While law firms do follow some standard practices like signing contracts with their associates and giving them fixed paid leave, the chambers of practicing advocates are bound by no such qualms. The number of days in your week, whether you are expected to always be within earshot of your phone at all hours, even whether you get Sundays off; these and most other basic considerations, are entirely at the whim of your employer. That apart, we routinely get flak from our seniors for being even a tad bit late in replying to mails received after reasonable office hours. These instances continue to remain routine for most of us.

We are often derided by our bosses and colleagues for endeavouring to strike a work life balance right at the start of the profession. We are rather encouraged to adapt long work hours as an acceptable way of life. Concerns such as the ones expressed in this article are often prematurely dismissed by the argument that starry-eyed young graduates faced with the harsh realities of professional life always have much to complain about, but this is often a convenient deflection from the truth in these complaints. The fact is that more often than not, the people like us that are making these complaints are not merely lazy or cynical, but are genuinely disillusioned by a system that expects too much in return for too little.

This expectation, while unreasonable by itself, inevitably prejudices some more than others. The inexplicable desire and opportunity to work indefinitely and especially at night means that certain advocates unofficially endorse a policy of not employing female associates as juniors, even in metropolitan cities like Delhi and Bombay. As a result, in addition to facing hurdles common to all young lawyers, women also bear the brunt of being women, which becomes just another reason to exclude them from a profession that has historically been of men, by men and for men.

What is beneath this ‘delusional sense of hard work’? What causes most workplaces to imbibe this ‘perception of ambition’? Predominantly, it is our culture of work. Late working hours and the impending weekend blues have penetrated all spheres of work, more particularly law firms and chambers. Maximum city and minimum life, in fact, is a metaphor that aptly describes our profession today; much like life in metropolitan cities tends to overwhelm its inhabitants, our profession overwhelms us. Our workplace culture has not only accepted unreasonable work hours as normal, it also seems responsible for cultivating this skewed conception of ‘normal’ through practices like creating false urgency in meeting deadlines.

Rather than developing ways to improve efficiency at work, we have encouraged the glorification of late hours, which are portrayed as the only means to an end. And although this conception usually trickles down from the top, often our colleagues are also to blame for perpetuating it in order to ‘get ahead’ in the profession. Courtesy our professional culture, it is expected that work be our only priority while everything else, whether it be a personal life, a hobby or a family commitment, takes a backseat. Whilst the world moves away from a five-day working week, us lawyers are committed to extending our week with a greater rigor.

It’s also worth mentioning that while the environment at workspaces is largely influenced by the people at task, for lawyers, other factors quintessential to the profession also contribute equally towards it. For instance, most law chambers, and particularly those representing government bodies, witness a barrage of work post seven o’clock in the evening, because most courts publish their list of matters to be heard the next day only at that belated hour. This system not only creates an added burden on junior associates to prepare for matters by burning midnight oil, but also compels even a successful, well-established lawyer to overwork herself to the point of fatigue just to stay in step with her contemporaries.

Although many courts have adopted a supposedly streamlined system of e-filing of cases, the situations encountered by junior associates in filing a matter and negotiating with the Court staff to have it listed, are straight out of an episode of ‘Office Office’. And even though many of these administrative duties are assigned to our law clerks, we end up performing them as a consequence of the skewed chain of accountability that characterizes our workplaces. Sorting through this entangled web of responsibilities means the day often goes by without us getting to the tasks we had planned. Inefficiencies in the court system in India also augment and nurture this culture of long hours and last-minute chaos, to the detriment of both lawyers, judges and litigants.

We can say with confidence that none of the factors discussed in this article which contribute to a toxic and expectation-heavy work culture are helping to motivate young lawyers to be better workers or to better their skills. On the other hand, what these factors do contribute to is the cultivation of a generation of young professionals who suffer from ‘Phantom Vibration Syndrome’ and are constantly reaching for phones that aren’t ringing, who feel guilt for not being available to work at all hours, who are chastised for having the (un)realistic expectation that their time would have some value in their workplace.

Even without bringing into this equation the paltry amounts that well-established lawyers pay their juniors, young and talented lawyers have enough reasons to be disillusioned and to end up changing their line of work or, in some extreme cases, leaving the profession altogether.

There are studies which suggest that the average worker who is in office for 8 hours a day is productive for barely half that amount of time. Understandably, a lawyer’s office cannot function with only four hours of work in a day. However, being cognizant of facts such as this, we cannot be under any delusions that a lawyer sitting in office for 14 hours a day has all guns blazing for that much time.

The recent changes to work routines all over the world during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that flexibility and independence in deciding one’s schedule has met with good results. For our profession, this has meant courts adapting to new systems of electronic filing, appearing and arguing before judges online and lawyers working on briefs from their homes during the lockdown.

In the face of this crisis, lawyers, who hold tradition and formality to the highest of regard, have adapted to a whole new normal where court hearings are replaced by Zoom calls, and office cubicles were exchanged for living room sofas. And even though the transition has been wrought with challenges, we continue to address and overcome them.

It’s high time that instead of dismissing developments such as these as anecdotal, we embrace them and acknowledge that a different way of working can also yield results. The emphasis needs to be on efficiency and quality of work, and not merely on spending a certain number of hours in office.

Law offices should take this situation as an opportunity to start providing some flexibility to their associates to work from home and to minimize the impending Saturday Blues faced by most of us, even in non-pandemic times. If the goal is for every employee to perform to their highest level of competence and capability, then, law chambers must spend some time, energy and effort in hiring paralegals and/or training their clerks to handle administrative and billing work, instead of dumping such tasks on their juniors in addition to their already overflowing deliverables.

Chambers and firms alike must recognize their responsibility to address and reduce the anxiety caused to their associates by keeping them at their beck and call for mundane tasks and must endeavour to reverse this expectation of being constantly accessible. Most importantly, our culture must evolve to respect and foster a clear and equal demarcation between our professional and personal lives, irrespective of which rung of the professional ladder we are at.

The authors are advocates practicing in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court.

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