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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reconciling Becoming a Lawyer with my Anti-9-to-5 Mindset

Lawyers have a reputation for being obsessive workers, putting in well over the 40 hours per week that most normal people are forced to do in order to survive in our society. I think this obsession with work has a lot to do with the way most lawyers bill for their work. Well, that's just it, they don't bill for the work, they bill for the amount of time it takes to do the work. And of course, this method of billing doesn't provide much incentive to be particularly efficient, which rather makes me uncomfortable with the ethics of the legal field. (...Ethics... ha!)

There are other things besides method of billing that make legal work extremely expensive. When I started working at my current law firm, for instance, I was appalled to find out that we actually itemize postage, copies, faxes, and various office supplies, and then bill those to our clients. Whatever happened to business expense write offs? I'm sure each of these would apply. But that's the legal industry for you -- even in a good firm, there are bad practices.

Lawyers aren't all bad. There are plenty of good people out there who happen to be lawyers (and I happen to hope to be one of them one day). There are also lawyers who don't bill by the hour, but on a contingency fee basis. This only really works for areas of law in which the lawyer is out to get a settlement for his client, and then the lawyer takes a cut, usually 1/3 of the settlement amount (and another 1/3 usually goes to cover litigation expenses, so the client gets only 1/3 of the settlement for himself. Sometimes I think that 1/3 isn't worth the outrageous amount of time it takes to get anything done in the legal industry.) Contingency lawyers have more incentive to get work done quickly so that they can get paid, but this of course means that the quality of work may suffer in the process.

It's no wonder no one likes lawyers. They are expensive, slow-working, slave drivers.

But the ethics or lack thereof of the legal industry are not really what I wanted to talk about in this post. I want to reconcile my desire to join the legal industry with my resistance to the 9 to 5 lifestyle. So I'm going to lay out how I plan to run my firm, which we'll call Bunsnip & Associates:

1) Flexible workdays.
Let's face it, people waste at least 2 hours at work, and sometimes more than that. So let's give those hours back to our lives instead of forcing our employees to sit at their desks and try to look busy. I know that I was much more productive when I worked part time at my previous firm, and that's because I basically worked as much as was needed to get the job done, generally 3-6 hours per day. We've become obsessed with the amount of time we spend at the office instead of focusing on what's really important: getting the job done.

At Bunsnip & Associates, people will be paid a minimum of a 40-hour work week, but they will only have to work as much as necessary to get the job done -- and the workload will never go higher than what is reasonable for a 40-hour work week. Reviews will be performance based, and not based on number of hours-logged. If that means you work 3 hours one day and 6 the next, then great. All the better if it gives you back time to spend on what you actually want to spend it on: your life!

2) Generous vacation policies
Americans get less vacation time than even the Chinese -- who have a strong reputation for being overworked. Studies have shown that increasing the amount of vacation time employees receive in turn increases productivity and results in higher profits. The reason? Burned out employees don't care very much and do just as much as they need to do to keep their jobs. They don't strive to do well for the sake of self-betterment and pride in a job well done. One the other hand, well-rested employees feel rejuvenated when they return from vacation, and take pride in doing their job well, because they know another well-deserved break is just around the corner.

What's the deal with our scant holidays in America? And why only two weeks vacation (which tend to have to be broken up into smaller periods anyway)? Why do most businesses give two days paid for Thanksgiving, but only one day for Christmas? At Bunsnip & Associates, the firm will shut down between Christmas Eve and New Years Day, and every employee will get paid vacation time for the period. It will also shut down for the first week of July, in honor of our nation's birth, and complete with paid vacation. Other regular paid holidays will be observed. Employees may then take an additional month of paid vacation time.

Those are the two main things that I think are important for getting our priorities straight in life. We need to shift the focus away from work and back to our lives. Work should be a pleasure, and should sustain our lives, but it shouldn't come at the cost of our precious time. Work to live, not live to work. That's my vision.

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feed the world with PEZ said...

I think one big problem with our overworked society is that everything revolves making a profit for shareholders.

Employees are the largest expense a business has. So naturally the first budget to be cut is employee benefits like vacation and holidays. I used to laugh when every year my company would perform a yearly survey to rank our benefits as to which were the most important to us. What they were really asking is which ones they should cut first.

The extremely overpaid execs at the top have a nasty habit of not thinking long term. In order for them to get their big bonuses they have to make higher profits every quarter to keep stock holders happy. I think its easy to see that since the great depression and the economy was "pump primed" there has been a steady decline in the amount of employee benefits and quality of purchasable products. Items are designed to be disposable or just not to last very long. Even large items such as couches really don't last very long anymore. Technology is spoon fed and is designed to force upgrades (like microsoft windows and most other software). This forces you to constantly spend money on something (try it for a few days, bet you cant go a week without spending money). As businesses need to make more and more profits your benefits get cut, the quality of products goes down, sometimes jobs are cut and later refilled with lower paid employees. There is no way that an economy can continue like this. There will be a breaking point.

There is a reason that people used to join unions and as they have lost power (mainly due to corporations and creating legal strategies and changing laws to combat unions) people are losing more and more benefits.

Once people can no longer afford homes on two incomes and everything you purchase falls apart people might get off of their asses and come together to make real change. See there used to be this thing called "boycotting". Which to all the youngsters out there who have never heard of it. It means that you simply abstain from buying a product or from a store that you don't like. It seems silly and fruitless, however, if EVERYONE stops purchasing this product then the market disappears or the company changes the way it does business. Give it a try sometime. Preferably soon before you are working 12 hour days with no time off. Its closer than you think.

stangman said...

I love your idea of how to run an office. I certainly wish more people who manage people shared our views about productivity.

Regarding the charge of postage and copies and such, my line of work includes a similar charge, which I never understood until I learned the history, which clarifies it somewhat: It's called a "facilities" charge, and evolved from the days when music copyists, who provided their own pens and ink, were allowed to charge for the paper required for each job, and also if special offices or equipment were required for a particular job, then the cost of renting such offices and/or equipment were passed directly to the employer of said copyist. It is upheld by the union to this day, and reinforces the truth that those who hire us are in fact our employers (we are not self-employed), and are responsible for all office expenses incurred during our employment. We are not independent contractors, nor are we really our own bosses, but I am glad that a union still exists to ensure that I am well-protected, pensioned, and insured (not well, but who is these days?). I count myself among the lucky.

I doubt, however, that this is the case with lawyers charging such odd fees, but there may be some old bit of history which might explain some of it. Or maybe most lawyers really are scumbags...

Sra said...

Thanks for your comment and especially thanks for your little history lesson. That's very interesting. I can see how back in the day music copyist would need to charge for their paper, as it was likely very expensive back then. The ironic thing is that music copyists very likely were contract workers, which is why I would consider it easy to pass on office and equipment costs to the employer: if the employer wants the job done, he'd better foot the bill.

I do suspect that lawyers don't do this for union reasons, but I'm not sure, there could be a good excuse. It still bothers me, though. Not all lawyers are scumbags, but even the good ones cost too much.

It's easy to see how the working world could be different when you are at the bottom. The trick is going to be keeping the vision as I work my way up to the top, and hopefully blog posts like this will help me remember. But I have this worry that money corrupts people, even good people. But I also believe that the people in the top wouldn't substantially lose money by making these changes. Like we say, productivity would go up if workers had better motivation in the form of rest. So it is my goal to institute these practices one day.

Sra said...

I'm sorry it took me so long to acknowledge your post; I do appreciate it.

But you definitely have a good point with the shareholders issue. I wonder how things would be different if our economy didn't revolve around the stock market. It's been such a given for such a long time that it seems only natural, but really, it's a rather unintuitive side to money. Frankly, I don't even understand how the market works.

While employees are indeed the largest expense, they are for that very reason also the largest asset, and when companies fail to see this and treat their employees badly, they may save money in the short run, but they would probably have been better off if they had taken the care to cultivate loyal, happy employees.

You should have told your employer that all your benefits were equally important to you! They wouldn't care, though, they'd still cut something. Bastards.

I used to think that new things were better than old things, but you're right: stuff isn't made to last anymore. For instance, you can't buy a decent iron, vacuum, or even toaster anymore. They are all designed to break down eventually. I think you once told me about how copy machines are made with parts specifically designed to break at some point. Ludicrous.

I can't remember the website, but there's a group of people who pledge not to spend money for a year, except on things like groceries and toothpaste and all that, but everything else they have to trade for or make themselves. A lot of people were really changed by living this way, for the better. It's an interesting experiment, and I honestly don't know if I could do it. But I suppose if you have to not spend money, you could find ways to be creative.

Your vision of the future is frightening, and yet I too can envision it. Maybe one day we'll have to start a revolution.

I like to boycott things all the time, like Club Sound, Saltair, and now Best Buy. I don't feel it makes a difference, but for the sake of principle it does.

Thanks again for writing!

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