Falling off the greasy pole

Times Online, May 05, 2006

A friend called recently and told me that he feared the worst. His firm — let’s call them Miser & Co — were going to sack him. He didn’t really know why, but just had a feeling things were heading that way. His billing had, he confessed, been lacklustre of late, but this was less a consequence of his own failings and more to do with a national downturn in his field of practice. My friend was (he further admitted) fed up working with the various misers, with whom he had been in partnership for the best part of nine years, but did not relish the day on which his services would be terminated. I advised him to keep his head down, do his job well and smile sweetly.

This my friend did for a while, only to ring me in bewilderment. "I’ve just had a meeting with the main man," he said. "He came into my office, shut the door, looked around to check no one could hear anything, then told me that I needn’t worry, there wasn’t a conspiracy against me." This sounded mighty fishy. "It’s what they do to football managers, isn’t it?" he said. "They give them a vote of confidence then sack them the next day."

Sure enough, a week or so later the miser-in-chief revisited my friend’s office. He was merciless. "We’ve had a meeting and decided that we no longer want to work with you," he said. My friend asked if he could be told the reason for this decision. The miser-in-chief said no. My friend said: "I think that having worked here for nine years, I’m entitled to know why you and the partners no longer want to work with me." The miser-in-chief replied indignantly: "I have not come here to be interrogated," and walked off.

And so ended a nine-year working relationship. This incident may be fresh from the wilds of Norfolk but is typical of the legal profession. You might think that lawyers would be scrupulously fair in the delicate matter of dismissal — mindful of the rules of natural justice and the potentially expensive consequences of getting it wrong — but you would be mistaken. Rather as builders sometimes neglect their own properties, all too many law firms behave as if employment law is applicable to everyone but themselves.

There was the case of the attractive female solicitor who found the attentions of one of the partners rather less than professional. When she objected to his constant innuendo and habit of encouragingly caressing her derriere, she was given a final written warning, the ostensible reason for which was her failure to produce an attendance note of an important meeting. The partner’s conduct did not change, as if he imagined that in giving her a warning she would acquiesce in his advances for fear of losing her job. He was, regrettably, right. She had only just qualified, had borrowed money to put herself through law school and feared that if she sued under the all-too-applicable sex discrimination laws she would render herself unemployable by other firms. She put up with him until she found another job.

Not everyone will respond with such pragmatism. Lawyers are well aware of the nuances of employment law and, in theory at least, are better placed than most to fight their corner when subjected to unfair treatment by their employers. The problem, though, is one of bargaining power. All the laws in the world are of little use when a career needs to be forged at the same time as bills are paid and a family brought up. The partners know this. This inequality of arms can, in the more dysfunctional firms, make for nothing but misery for the assistants and trainees.

The problem, as my friend’s case illustrates, is even worse when the partners decide to oust one of their brethren. They say a partnership is like a marriage, and perhaps, therefore, there is no easy way to separate. Here, the "amicable divorce" is a chimera, forever out of reach. My friend’s colleagues were well aware that his wife was about to give birth, yet that didn't stop them serving his notice of termination on her due date. The insensitivity of the timing was presumably calculated to engender as much stress and disequilibrium in my friend as possible, thereby weakening his resolve to fight. But my friend is not meek. He rebounded, and his wife and child are doing well. He was never given a reason for the firm’s decision to ditch him, nor was he ever thanked for nine years’ loyal service. He is not expecting flowers.