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Why lawyers should get off the hamster wheel

Starting this week, a new series on legal matters. Andrew Walker, managing director of Walker Legal, based in Belfast and Portadown, challenges the way that law firms are run

I started my professional career in a small provincial practice, doing whatever came through the door. The notion of a billable hours target was an alien concept; it was a case of doing the best job possible for every client and billing a fair amount to build a reputation for excellent service. As a junior lawyer I tried to do exactly that, but I never had to cancel a holiday or feel estranged from my wife and children due to work commitments.

As my own practice has grown and developed, I have had to give more thought to how we, as a profession, value our people. My own philosophy is that people are the most valuable asset of any service business, and their working experience should not be measured and judged solely on how much of their time they devote to the pursuit of fees.

I think it is hammered into all lawyers that the Holy Grail is to be an equity partner. The glory, the power and the riches that come with it. The problem is, it's a goal that very few lawyers will achieve. There isn't enough equity to go around, as established equity partners do not want to take home less money year on year, the natural consequence of expanding the number of equity partners in the absence of massive growth in profitability. But in attempting to "make it", lawyers are forced on to that hamster wheel of high billing, long hours and endless business development events to show how profitable they are and to prove their worth to the firm.

So, what happens if you meet or exceed your fee target or land a couple of big clients? Will you have made it? Usually not, as it doesn't stop there. You start billing more hours at a higher rate and try to bring in bigger clients, because that's usually how you gain a few percentage points of equity each year to climb the equity ladder.

In my view the traditional model is broken. Some of the best legal talent (particularly women with young families) is being lost. They don't want to put every aspect of their lives behind their work all the time. So, often they don't even make partner, or find that when they do, there are four people ahead of them in line for equity.

I am not so naive that I don't understand the cost of doing business, but I believe those costs can still be covered and there can still be profit to share under a fairer model.

So here's my idea. Why not let this legal talent earn more? Let these hard working, ambitious people take more of what they bill and earn in an environment conducive to enjoying work but, more importantly, that permits a genuine work/life balance.

Why not have a model where you share more meaningfully in the profitability of what you do? So instead of having to work night and day to bill 3-4 times your salary and then maybe get a bonus as decided by the equity partners, why not take a bigger slice of your own profit? You did the work, you have the relationship with the client, why not share in the upside?

That's our model. We want people to be properly rewarded, to be able to work flexibly and remotely around their family. We want to attract the best, most dynamic legal minds.

  • Next week, Helen Winter, head of corporate at Walker Legal, will examine the implications for Northern Ireland agrifood businesses of a British exit from the EU
  • Contact Walker Legal at 6 Bridge St, Portadown, BT62 1WL, Tel: 02838 337591 and Scottish Provident Building, 7 Donegall Sq West, Belfast, Co Antrim, BT1 6JH, 02890 918461

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