I feel a little duped. I feel like Cher in Clueless when she discovers that her love interest, Christian, is gay. It is not Christian’s fault, but it is Cher’s for being naive. While I did not go into law with this wide eyed view that it wouldn’t come with its lows, I didn’t quite expect this.
Before I go into explicit detail, I will tell you about my background.
Not many people know this but I never actually finished high school. High school for me was too much of a system. A system of white, middle class families and if you did not fit the mould you were out.
When I was three years old my father passed away from cancer. My mother was then left to raise my older brother (who was four years old at the time), myself and my younger sister (who was merely a one- year-old). My upbringing was not conventional, my mother’s parenting style was very liberated. I was allowed to work from the age of 11. We had the Italian influence from my grandparents. These differences – such as the culture I was raised in and the loss of my father at a young age – meant that I was forced to grow up quicker than my peers.
Once you’ve been exposed to life and death you have a deeper and more complex view of the world than another 16-year-old who has the two parents at home and enough money. I could never be the same as my peers (even if I liked them).
At the tender age of 16, I no longer considered myself a child. The issue with school was that it kept insisting that I was one and kept treating me like I was one. I eventually decided to leave and pursued a Diploma of Business at Bedford Business College. This course taught me the fundamental skills I use to this day such as computer skills and got me my first job as a legal secretary at the age of 17. Eventually I got tired of that role and went to University to complete a Social Science degree at Macquarie University and then went on to do a Graduate Law degree at Western Sydney University. The point is I worked hard to get to where I am. Just like Aretha Franklin sings, all I ask from my employers is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Every young lawyer I speak to reflects on their experiences in private practice with contempt and gritted teeth. Why? How would you like a job where you are paid virtually nothing (there is actually competition for those voluntary placements believe it or not), work long hours and have no work life balance? Shows like Suits, Boston Legal and the Good Wife do a wonderful job of representing the legal industry as one of glamour with interesting cases and work. The truth for a lot of young lawyers is far from this.
The effects of no work-life balance are costing us more than you think. Not only are mental illnesses such as depression rife amongst the legal industry, but it is taking a toll on our health while we sit down for 12 hours a day. We are not well paid, we are not happy and often stuck in private firms with no means of escape.
The first private practice job I took since leaving university was as a paralegal at a firm that specialised in mortgages. Looking back on it I should have seen the signs. The office was poorly lit, there was something depressing about the atmosphere. The entire firm was held up by Gen Ys lifting the overpaid, useless and absent partners. I was uninspired and fed up (revolution anyone)?
I was working 12 hours a day (7am till 7pm) and even this wasn’t enough to keep up with the work that kept piling up. I would literally get an email every two minutes and I was expected to reply instantly. If I didn’t reply within 15 minutes then the lovely mortgage managers and brokers would complain to my manager.
Instead of standing up for me, my manager blamed me for not 'prioritising my work'. I guess there must be something wrong with me. If 7am till 7pm is still not enough to be on top of the 100 files I have, it must be me 'not prioritising'. Yes manager, that was the problem. This firm was not private practice. It was a factory.
The second job I took (also legal related) was so much more hopeful than the first. I had a friendly interview, I was told that the staff were 80 per cent women. 'This is great!' I thought naively. That means they must be flexible and a friendly work environment. They asked me what I didn't want in a manager. I responded that I do not work well in environments where I was micromanaged. They said that they never did that. I believed them.
We had our first team meeting about a month into the role, where we actually received a memo stating that they were monitoring our start and finish times with our swipe data. That we were not allowed to take personal calls, have breakfast at our desks, take breaks and talk.
I actually got told off for taking two minutes extra at lunch, for arriving 5 minutes late once (the manager never noticed when I was early or when I stayed back). I disagreed with another worker about how a letter should be written (it was my file) and this was seen as such a big issue that it was escalated to the CEO. How dare I have an opinion? Even about letters that relate to my own files. They did not accept diversity to say the least.
Listen: Rules for open plan offices.
Inefficiency was almost rewarded at this place, even though I exceeded my KPIs, it was not uncommon to see files that had not been touched in nine months. It was also slow and painful to get anything done and yet again I was duped. Also despite the office being 80 per cent women they did not even have paid maternity leave and if you asked for flexibility, it was seen as a massive privilege. (Girl power anyone?) If an employer advertises their only 'perk' is paying for your practising certificate, they are probably not that good to work for.
The legal industry needs a complete culture overhaul, young workers are entitled to work/life balance just like anyone else. The health and well being of young people are important too. Private practice needs to stop preaching about work life balance and friendly environments if you don't practise them.
If you are thinking about becoming a lawyer, please consider that you are doing it for the right reasons and lower your expectations with private practice. If you think you are going to get rich this way - think again.
Disclaimer: some law firms are not like this, if you have a fantastic job please stay there but this is a true reflection on some of my experiences in the legal industry.