OctopusWhen meeting a client, most lawyers proudly whip out a notepad (embossed with the firm’s livery) and a pen. The more senior the solicitor, the fancier the pen (think chunky Mont Blanc). Ironically, the fancier the pen the less writing done, because scribbling down what’s discussed is the job of a trainee or junior lawyer. The client verbalises what they need done and the solicitor sagely listens, while the junior ferociously devours page after page of notepad with indecipherable scrawl.

Post-meeting the trainee/solicitor attempts to compile an attendance note. Either they type out what they’ve just scribbled or they dictate into a dictaphone. A secretary then types out what has been dictated and sends back the typed text to the ‘dictator’. The ‘dictator’ then checks it for accuracy and phew, the attendance is complete for the file. It really should be framed after all that but sadly, it’s not.

Could a partner simply type on a computer as the client talks? Two birds, one stone. One third of the labour and cost. Never. So what’s with the labour intensity of taking a simple attendance of the meeting? Well, the answer lies in (a) ‘churning’ and (b) the client serving the firm.

Churn: ‘a sinister practice used by unethical solicitors to elongate a simple task in order to increase the fees recorded on a file.’ Not quite Collins dictionary standard! Churning is enabled because of the hourly fee charged by solicitors where no fee is estimated or fixed by the law firm.

The client serves ‘Big Law’. Not the other way round. ‘The Firm’ is a wealth enhancement vehicle for mostly men, still in their fifties, called ‘equity’ partners. They are at the top of the pile. Underneath are all sorts of solicitors and trainees; legal executives and secretaries; personal assistants and admin teams of IT guys; business development executives; HR; finance; risk; education personnel; vanilla administration staff and even catering staff. That’s a big pile. The beast must be fed. It’s fed by giving non-equity partners daily billable targets. These targets are outlandish which results in the non-partners working all the hours of the day just to hit the target. Sometimes the practice of churning is engaged to fulfil such targets. The beast has an insatiable appetite for fees because of the cost to just keep the doors open and the desire for ever-increasing profit per equity partner. And that’s where the client comes in handy.

Many junior solicitors give up their youth/health/relationships/common sense for as long as they can take it (until they see the light then exit) spending often 15-hour days in crystal palaces to generate fees for old duffers who don’t know their names.  The young ones do this because they believe ‘Big Law’ grants status and exclusivity.  And in many ways it does.  Some learn quicker than others that it is not far short of exploitation and that there are other legal jobs out there which offer much better prospects for promotion and work/life balance. The rate of attrition in ‘Big Law’ is significant. Of one trainee intake of 30 trainees in a ‘Big Law’ firm back in 2000, none remain. The last survivor left recently, realising the dangling carrot of equity came with strings of politics and an undesirable lifestyle . The duffers won’t go into mourning – plenty more graduates ready, willing and able to ‘churn’.