Expert View: Work like a slave or get a life? At least you have a choice

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The Independent Online

What makes people work so hard? In the City, lawyers have a particular reputation for toiling – through the night and sometimes at weekends to push a deal over the finishing line. And then there's the out-of- hours schmoozing to get the next job.

Of course, City lawyers aren't the only people who work hard. And we'd be wrong to moan about it; we get extremely well paid for our efforts.

From trainees to senior partners, no one relishes the long hours – they leave you with little control over whether your life is mainly in or out of the office. But take into account the job satisfaction and security, and the financial rewards, and the question is where the balance should lie. In the recent past, those starting a career in law have increasingly been asking themselves that question.

Many young lawyers no longer expect to spend their entire career with the firm where they train. In the factory-sized firms, the carrot of earning your way to partnership is remote, and in any event, many question whether owning a law firm is all it is cracked up to be. Young lawyers see the partners working harder than they did as employees and shouldering the burden of financial responsibility. They ask: "Is it all worth it?"

In the US, there seems to be a uniformly higher work ethic. My guess is that it arises out of the greater importance of careers in defining a person there. Fewer holidays are taken and there is a hint of pride when US lawyers talk about the unbelievably high number of hours for which they bill each year – compared to the concern among their British brethren that something must be wrong when colleagues are routinely working weekends and late into the evenings.

And the older US partners never seem to talk of retirement. Many work well into their sixties and sometimes seventies, even though they can't need the cash any more. In London, the talk is about retiring early and there are few deal lawyers around who are over 55. There is nothing embarrassing about saying in the City that you are going to stop working in your fifties and devote your energies to mowing the lawn. The most likely reaction from others with time left to serve is envy, rather than derision.

So apart from retiring early (which does not offer much sustenance to a 25-year-old), what answers are there to the work/ life conundrum? Some, but not many, come to the decision that the career is not for them and switch to something lower paid but with a higher social-conscience quotient. Others become mercenaries and say that if they are going to kill themselves, they might as well do it for the highest bidder. Others choose to move out of client work to provide know-how, training and other professional support to the deal-doers.

The change that has allowed young people to ask if they have the right work/life formula is that they think they have a choice. They don't have to work like slaves all their lives if they don't want to. Despite house price inflation and the legacy of student loans, there is enough of a feel-good factor around for people not to worry. They might have five different careers and any notion that it might be best simply to keep digging in the same mine, and increase their rate of shovelling, is outweighed by the sense that they will always be able to find a well-paid job.

It would take a lot to undermine this feeling of control over their own destiny – something like the 1992 recession which destroyed the notion that lawyers' jobs were immune from the downs of the economy. Not even a slave driver would wish for that.

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