Biglaw lawyers are a late-arriving crowd compared to their banking counterparts. It’s one of the few perks of the job. Lawyers work hard and have to be at the beck and call of their clients, but in this age of wireless connectivity, they don’t have to punch into a physical plant every morning like a common dock worker. Yay?

Grown adults can usually be trusted to manage their own time efficiently, but occasionally partners decide to crack the whip and demand that associates be physically in the office during “business hours.” Why? Who knows. Partners at MoFo did this a few years ago. It’s an office, dammit. People should be in theirs so I can sit in mine and say “come here,” and then I can hand them a document because I’m a partner and .pdfs frighten and confuse me!

Whatever, it’s the partners’ world, associates are just living in it. That’s why associates at the D.C. office of one Biglaw firm received two “demoralizing” emails this week — one that was kind of boasting how the entire firm was slammed, another that seemed to have no knowledge of the first one that instructed all of these slammed people to be tied to their desks….

A tipster from the D.C. office of Goodwin Procter described the emails he received this week as “a lesson in how to demotivate associates.”

The first email was sent on Monday. It’s a classic “Man, we’re slammed, sorry about that. Also, if you are not being totally ground into dust, PLEASE LET US KNOW.” This kind of email happens all the time in Biglaw:

Subject: workloads

As some of you may have noticed, staffing has gotten much tighter and all of you are (or should be!) busier these days. Unfortunately, I know for a lot of you this means more late nights and busted weekends, and I’m sorry for that. If you feel like you are really struggling, please don’t hesitate to come talk to me.

If you have any availability – short of long term – please make sure to note it by updating your most recent iStaff reports. If you are a junior and have immediate time (any amount, we’ll take), please email me back.

Biglaw is such a strange place. Where else do they say, “Please raise your hand if you’ve managed to avoid abuse thus far and we just haven’t noticed yet, thanks”? Thing is, as these emails go, this is a fairly nice one. They say “sorry,” for what it’s worth. And you know, while looking for volunteers to get slammed, they also say people who are slammed are welcome to talk about it. I’m not sure what talking will get you, but there’s that.

Anyway, any potential goodwill for the Monday email was pissed away on Thursday (emphasis in the original):

Subject: IMPORTANT: PLEASE READ

All,

I want to reiterate the importance of the time you arrive in the office in the mornings. As I know has been said at every orientation that at least I have been to, arriving in the office no later than 9:30am and being in the office on a regular basis between the hours of 9:30 and 5:30 is important.

While the flexibility this job provides is one of its perks, keeping to regular business hours is a tenet of professionalism. The partners have become keenly aware of and none-too-thrilled with the increasingly late arrivals by the associates in this office.

If for some reason you cannot regularly make it to the office and be in the office during these hours, please let me know and we will explore whether you should apply for a flexwork schedule.

This is not the kind of email I enjoy sending on sunny, beautiful days, but before the displeasure of the partners rises any further, I want to ask you to please start being more mindful of your arrival times.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Thank you for your help on this,

So on Monday the firm is really sorry for blowing up your nights and weekends, but on Thursday the firm has its panties in a bunch about people who have been working nights and weekends being at their physical desks by an arbitrary time in the morning. And why? Because some partners who don’t even want to put their names on it feel displeasure. Great.

And while we’re here, what’s up with “staffing has gotten much tighter”? Isn’t it the summer? Shouldn’t there be summer associates? It’s not like there aren’t tons of associates out on the street desperate for work. Isn’t “staffing properly” something that these displeased partners should be focused on so that people aren’t getting crushed, instead of throwing a hissy fit because people are rolling into the office at 10:00 a.m. after being there till God knows when the night before?

We reached out to Goodwin about the messages in these emails and whether or not there had been any staffing reductions to make things tight just at the moment. The firm said no. Here’s the response from HR:

We have not had any layoffs in our DC office. Staffing has gotten “tight” because the office is quite busy. We understand that many associates are working long hours and appreciate their efforts on behalf of our clients. Like any business, we ask our associates, as a general matter, to be in the office and available to clients and one another during normal working hours. But we fully understand that’s not always reasonable or possible.

We value the dedication of our associates and make every effort to support them. The full content of the emails that you reference encourages any associate who is struggling with his or her workload to reach out to one of our staffing managers for support. Similarly the emails remind our associates about our flexwork policy for those who want to adjust their regular working hours to fit their work and personal needs. Through these efforts we try to balance the firm’s need to perform the highest quality work on behalf of our clients with a flexible working environment for our attorneys.

I guess I just don’t agree with the underlying premise behind a couple of these statements:

  • A. I don’t think being available to clients and being “in the office” are the same thing in 2013.
  • B. It doesn’t sound like associates are asking to adjust “regular” hours because of their personal needs. It sounds like the firm has extended “regular” hours well beyond business hours, and the associates are just trying to fit basic personal upkeep in where they can. Getting a night’s sleep is not a “flexwork” schedule.

None of this is Goodwin’s “fault.” The firm is busy. It happens. In this economy, it’s great to be busy. But if we can recognize that people are busy, recognize that people are doing their best, and recognize that everybody at the firm (not just the partners) has an interest in the firm’s success, can’t we also recognize that a few “none-too-thrilled” partners who don’t understand what a Bluetooth device is need not dictate the personal arrival times of an entire office?

Because, let’s be honest, were there any client meetings missed? Was there really even one case of a client desperately needing to get in touch with an associate who couldn’t because the kid didn’t get to his desk until 10:05? Is that what we’re really talking about?

OR… are we talking about this because some octogenarian partner walked his septuagenarian client through the building and wanted to show off all his trained monkey/associates hopping around, waving paper and law books like it was the 1950s? Are we talking about a partner who had actually been relying on a mid-level to do some crucial work, but despite the fact they’ve worked together for five years hadn’t actually written her cell phone number down anywhere? Aside from these anachronistic call backs to a “business environment,” can anybody cite any fact, evidence, or metric that proves the utility of having a second-year associate at his desk by 9:30, as opposed to 10:30, as opposed to 2:30, as long as the work is getting done?

Is this just another fight over the cosmetics of Biglaw? ‘Cause that’s fun and all, but a little bit annoying when people have real work they are trying to accomplish.

Earlier: MoFo Associates, Are You At Work Yet? You So Better Be At Work Already!
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