"The elephant in the room": working-time patterns of solicitors in private practice in Melbourne

Employment Australia Melbourne

This paper explores working-time arrangements for solicitors in private practice, drawing on official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), varied documents, surveys, postings on legal blogs ('blawgs') and other secondary material, as well as a small program of interviews with solicitors, ex-solicitors and Human Resources (HR) managers in law firms in Melbourne (Victoria). It seeks to both describe and explain the working-time patterns of solicitors in private practice. We sketch out the dominant working-time pattern, centred on long daily hours and limited opportunities for flexibility and diversity (such as part-time work), and argue that this pattern is both rigid and demanding. After briefly considering the response of employees and the tendency for many men and even more women to exit out of law firms, the paper takes up the challenge of explaining the dominant working-time pattern. We examine the peculiar system of 'billable hours' that provides the framework for the work of most solicitors in private practice. We suggest that this system has been transformed from a technique for billing clients to a tool for managing and controlling the work of employee solicitors, in particular through the imposition of targets, close time recording and careful monitoring of the performance of work. As a result, it functions as a vehicle for tight control over the work of employee solicitors, pressing their work into a narrow and rigid set of working-time arrangements and promoting a pattern of long daily hours. Nevertheless, though powerful, the billable hours system is only a technical tool, and we go on to argue that the crucial underlying dynamic is provided by management practices and the drive for profit. This analysis implies that rigid and demanding work schedules of solicitors in private practice are not a mere hangover from the past that can be expected to dissolve with the passage of time, the succession of new generation to a ‘business case’ for more humane employee relations.

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