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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Managing the working week

One curious feature of practice as an international lawyer is that you tend to work all sorts of strange hours. In part this is the consequence of charging by the hour, and having unrealistic billable hours targets by which one's performance and promotion prospects are assessed. 140 hours a month, or seven hours' a day five days a week, meaning that you need to work flat out all time, has now long been superseded; it is common for large international law firms to have billing targets of 160, 180, 200 or even more hours per month, essentially forcing lawyers to work seven days a week to meet their billing targets.

However it is also the consequence of the curiously global and internationalist nature of the work. You may have clients all over the world, offices all over the world, and correspondent law firms all over the world, who want to have telephone calls, email exchanges or other communications at different hours and often on different days. Also everything in law tends to be very urgent. The profession is replete with deadlines, and there is typically some crisis (or several crises at once) on the horizon which means that you just have to keep working until the job is done. Many international law firms have beds in the offices, restaurants, and even bars, to try to encourage their lawyers to stay in the office for as long as possible and to revolve their entire lives around their work. This is a price paid for participation in the profession.

Lawyers therefore learn some curious working habits, operating in a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week environment, and we thought we might list them for the interested reader.

Firstly, lawyers learn to do things at either 4:55pm on a Friday or at 5:55pm, if they want to cause a disruption (which is often an effective psychological tool). You do something at 4:55pm if you are dealing with the public sector, who often go home at 5:00pm; you do something at 5:55pm if you are dealing with the private sector, who often go home at 6:00pm. People like to relax on Fridays - they are looking forward to the weekend (not lawyers; we will move onto that subject shortly). It is consistently shown in studies that work output is substantially less on Fridays, as employees start to breathe more easily in anticipation of the free days to come. So if you want to shock your counterpart and cause them disquiet, you send them unpleasant or menacing correspondence late on Friday afternoon.

This author has a general rule never to work hard on Saturdays. Everyone needs their holy day, as it were. Sundays however are days that lawyers are used to working, subject to their own religious commitments; and in particular Sunday afternoons and evenings. One reason for this is that in many Islamic countries, Sunday is a working day - indeed often the first working day of the week - and it may be necessary to engage with counterparts in such countries at the beginning of the week to gain their attention. The other reason to work Sundays is that nobody else generally is doing so, and therefore it is a good time to draft documents or extended pieces of correspondence that require concentration without disturbance. Another huge advantage of working on Sunday is that if you need to write something that requires the extended attention of the reader, he or she is most likely to give that document extended attention on a Monday morning. Hence you send the document on a Sunday evening, comfortable that it may be the first thing your correspondent reads on a Monday morning (people tend to read emails in reverse chronological order for no particularly good reason) and then give your document priority over those of others. So if you need someone to concentrate and think about a set of difficult issues, send the material stimulating that process on a Sunday evening.

Avoid trying to work on Mondays. Everyone is in a bad mood on Mondays as it is the start of the week and your colleagues may have a grim determination to be getting on with whatever they need to do and not be particularly easy to get along with. Workplace confrontations often take place on Mondays. If you do work on Monday, work from home. However the exception to this rule is the extremely unpleasant Monday morning meeting, which you schedule (on Friday afternoon) if you want to discipline someone or otherwise cause them extreme aggravation. That way they will spend all weekend worrying about it and they will come to you on Monday morning like a lamb, apologetic and agreeable to making amends. Never initiate disciplinary meetings or similar events on short notice. You are far less likely to obtain good results. Firstly you may be in a bad mood about the event, so you may be more explosive than would be desirable to manage the situation; secondly you may trigger an instinctive defensive reaction in the person that, if they are given some time to think about it and discuss it with their partner or friends, may be defused and an amicable result is more likely to be achieved. Only in the cases of the most grave misconduct in which ongoing damage to the firm is imminent should one ever exercise the draconian tools of summary suspension (which there is seldom any way back from) or summary dismissal.

Meetings scheduled for the mornings are always for more formal purposes; meetings scheduled for the afternoons for more relaxed topics. The prevailing consensus is that regular staff meetings should be held first thing in the morning, and then everyone can get on with their day. But there should not be too many of them: at most twice a week, and possibly only one. Plus they need to be structured, with agendas, and this takes work. Asking everyone round the table what they have been doing tends not to be very productive, as it leads everyone suddenly to think things up to say just so they don't look dumb and it gives an advantage to quick-witted wafflers (like this author) over more careful, thoughtful staff who contribute just as much to an office environment and the common goal as the big talkers. Preparing agendas for meetings is essential. It is a peculiarly British disease (although not only the British) to go to meetings without agendas and just to see what happens. This is not a good way to get the most out of meetings. Meetings should have outcomes; they are not social events. (There are bars and cafes for that.) They are either to try to create consensus, or to identify points of difference and then to establish a procedure for resolving those points of difference if consensus is required. (And question whether it is; often consensus is impossible because we all have different opinions, and so some sort of majority decision-making process must be used.)

Because people tend to get in better moods as the working week goes on, more benign communications that require sympathy are better off left to the middle to end of the working week - but not on Fridays where everyone is thinking of the weekend and does not want to be bothered.

Perhaps the most important point to draw out of this discussion is the importance of structuring the working week. The structure needs to be flexible, because crises take place and then things need to be moved around to accommodate the actions needed in consequence of the crisis. But people work much more effectively if they know what they are supposed to be doing at different times of each day. It gives them more comfort in coming to work and it makes them more industrious. There is nothing worse than either (a) coming into work one morning with not the slightest idea of what you are supposed to be doing (and this happens a lot in International law firms, which in this regard are not well managed); or (b) opening up your email and finding there are lots of things that need to be done simultaneously. This means that a little more effort needs to be put into middle management than some of us might like. Sometimes middle managers are not promoted for the right reasons; but in fact it is very important work, structuring the different obligations of the various staff and making sure that everybody knows what they ought to be doing to achieve the goals set by top management. It requires a different sort of skill to being a senior manager, which is often to set the direction of an institution and to inspire people to work towards those goals. Middle managers need to be involved in the daily nitty-gritty of organising the work of the various teams that make international law firms operate.

International law firms are fascinating places, full of lots of different sorts of people working round the clock to try to achieve complex tasks. They can be thrilling environments; but if run well they operate best as a gentle humming machine. This requires commitment on the part of senior management, middle managers and all staff members at every level, and running large organisations is no mean feat.


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