A&O’s time-recording strategy produces wrong kind of push

Magic circle firm suggests associates bone up during their journeys to and from work to fulfil 2,200-hour non-billable obligation

As revealed on the front page of this issue, Allen & Overy (A&O) is facing a battle to win over its associates to a new time-recording system, which requires them to rack up a minimum of 2,200 office hours each year.

Young solicitors have expressed fears about the impact the new time-recording regime will have on their precious and already precarious work-life balance.

According to an internal A&O memo seen by The Lawyer, associates and partners are to be set personal hourly plans for the first time.

Although A&Os associate chargeable targets are not the highest in the City, young lawyers will be expected to record between 500 and 600 extra hours on top of the 1,600-1,700 hours they are required to bill on an annual basis.

But although the minimum hours amount to 10 per day, the firm argues that it is unlikely that associates will be able to spend this long in the office every day.

As a result, the A&O memo recommends that individuals squeeze in the extra time by reading during their journeys to and from work, although how any cyclists or drivers are meant to cope with this is not made clear. A memo from July states that the aim is to emphasise the value the firm places on non-billable hours.

A&O associates have already raised opposition to the plans, and as Hannah Wiskin of the Young Solicitors Group (YSG) points out below, their protests have drawn attention to a whole host of issues facing associate solicitors today.

Good management?
Anyone who has seen Michael Moore’s seminal film Bowling for Columbine will recall how perplexed many of his interviewees were when asked to explain why gun crime is spiralling in the US. Their failure to acknowledge the link between gun possession and crime reminds me of the many law firms today that do not seem to understand the correlation between the way they manage their assistant solicitors and why those same assistants are leaving – and leaving in droves.

According to the article in The Lawyer on 18 August ‘A&O ignites associates row’, a total of 13 associates [check] in the unfortunately named employment, pensions and incentives department have resigned in the past year.

While it is not for me to speculate on the reasons for their departures, news that the colleagues they have left behind will soon be required to record a minimum of 2,200 office hours will hardly leave them agonising about their decision to jump ship.

According to the reports, associates will not have to stay longer in the office because most of the “know-how” reading can be done on the journey to and from work.

Have the people behind this proposal ever used public transport during the rush hour? Perhaps the more enterprising associates will commit their piled-up back issues of PLC to tape and work out to them at the gym.

But this is no joking matter. Not only does the A&O memo suggest an alarming disregard for the importance of training (the vital need to keep updated is relegated to the journey to and from work), but it also demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding of, and commitment to, good management principles. And A&O is by no means alone.

The long-hours culture in the City is only part of the problem. For too long law firms have been using assistants as a human resource, not as an investment.

Time and time again, the YSG hears of bright lawyers who cannot achieve their potential because of insufficient responsibility or sheer exhaustion. It also hears that firms are not changing working methods to ensure that a more diverse section of society can reach the higher echelons of the profession. When flexible working is promoted, it is often within the ranks of partnership. In some cases, flexible working is even used as a justification for demotion from partnership.

Judging by the response of those who attended the recent management and partnership conference hosted by the London YSG and Law Society management section, there is a surprising lack of information flowing from law firms about how assistants should be developing their careers.

Perhaps firms are concerned that they will be encouraging their assistants to leave if they do so. But they need not worry – they are doing a very good job of that already.

That is why the YSG is calling on the Law Society to introduce compulsory people management training for senior solicitors as part of its Continuing Professional Development requirement. It is absolutely essential that firms and future generations of partners take their obligations towards staff very seriously.

While law firms have had ample opportunity to get their houses in order, the number of shocking news stories does not abate. Or perhaps instead of management training, senior partners would prefer a visit from Mr Moore?

Hannah Wiskin is the Law Society Council member for young solicitors and vice-chair of the Young Solicitors Group