Pop quiz: who is the famous, then infamous, baseball player who had and probably still has the nickname “Charlie Hustle?” Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds. As Wikipedia explains, the name was originally bestowed upon Rose as a derogatory term, but he embraced it. “During another spring training game against the New York Yankees, Whitey Ford gave him the derisive nickname ‘Charlie Hustle’ after Rose sprinted to first base after drawing a walk. Despite (or perhaps because of) the way Ford intended it, Rose adopted that nickname as a badge of honor.”
We all hustle; I think it’s in our DNA as lawyers. But is that hustle gene always a good thing?
Given all the concern about mental health, substance abuse, and work-life balance, newer people in the profession may not have the same interest in clawing their way up the Biglaw ladder to maybe get a partnership ring (nonequity or equity?) after many years. Perhaps one reason is that the newbies have seen the sacrifices that we dinosaurs made in our careers, only to find that the purported prize wasn’t worth all the effort and those personal sacrifices. Think layoffs, being passed over, being impliedly (or expressly) told that you were not good enough. Junior lawyers see these situations often enough and wonder: Why work so hard? Why chase after something that, in the end, may not be worth the psychic and other prices paid?
As a recent article in BBC WorkLife pointed out:
The hustle-culture narrative promotes the idea that there’s always more to strive for: more money to make, a bigger title or promotion to secure and a higher ceiling to smash. Although not all entrepreneurs embrace these tropes, some experts say some people have still felt the pressure from the decades-long trickle-down effect of total immersion in work, often to the detriment of other facets of their lives.
We see this detriment all around us. It used to be “rise and shine,” but as the article points out, it has become “rise and grind.” And I don’t mean the alluring aroma of freshly ground beans that your favorite barista uses. We boast about our availability 24/7, but are we really that available? Should we be that available? I know, the excuse is that if you are not available, someone else is drooling to take up that slack. We pride ourselves in overworking, considering it a badge of honor as we ascend whatever ladder we think will lead us to wherever we think we want to go. But here’s my question: are you a commodity or a person?
Over the past several years, peeps have hit the “pause” button on the hustle code, working remotely or on a hybrid basis and realizing that face time may not be much more than an app on an iPhone. The calls (I won’t say “clarion”) by employers to cudgel employees to return to the office are more of a stick than a carrot.
Linking bonuses to attendance is akin to what we dinosaurs derisively referred to as “bed check.” In those days, no one came out and said that a part of your performance evaluation was attendance, being in your places with bright shiny faces. It was subtler then. Now, it’s more of the “velvet hammer” approach, or even no velvet at all. It’s an edict, a command, and very few, if any, lawyers respond well to such commands, except from judicial officers, and sometimes not even then.
So, with one Biglaw firm, it seems like it’s now bonus (literally) points for attendance, or at least that’s how it seems. It’s not “pay to play,” but “bonus for being there.”
And another Biglaw firm has decreed those attorneys in its litigation practice group “physically attend the office on three set office days each week, after initially requiring only one or two office days per week.” Note the use of the word “set,” as in “carved in stone.” Attorneys are purportedly professionals and thus traditionally have been allowed to act as such. It was perfectly okay to act like a professional during COVID-19, but now, not so much.
And it appears that deferrals of incoming classes, which was such a thing during the “Great Recession” of 2009-2010, may be staging a comeback. Just what newbies needed to hear.
For some newbies, deferrals may be how to figure out whether Biglaw is all that it’s cracked up to be, especially when they are seeing no loyalty at the outset, other than a stipend and maybe a promise of health insurance. Is it a preview of how these firms act when there’s a downturn and their unwillingness to tighten their own belts even just a little to help the newbies get a toehold? And please don’t tell me that belts can’t be tightened. Managers manage; leaders lead and often by example.
What about reducing office space instead of mandating return to work? Silly question.
Renting out whole floors of unneeded office space is now a thing, at least here. Law firm eyes were bigger than their stomachs and overestimated their office space needs. Impressing clients with huge office spaces and conference rooms the size of bowling alleys are relics of a bygone era. Clients were not impressed; only the lawyers were.
Our profession is composed of hundreds of thousands of lawyers who are not in Biglaw and who think that Biglaw is not the be-all and end-all of how and where to practice law. Just look around you and take heart that there are many ways to practice, at least until AI takes our jobs. However, that day may be sooner than we think.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.