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They Don't Know Beans

Vivia Chen

January 12, 2011

Image(1908989231) I envy accountants. Why? Because those number crunchers seem to enjoy fabulous lifestyles. According to The New York Times, "The accounting industry far outshines the rest of corporate America" in "respecting the work/life balance of employees."

Reports NYT's Steven Greenhouse:

At Ernst & Young, as at the nation’s other major accounting firms, workplace flexibility has been built into the culture — even during crunch time.

Every Monday morning, the 15 people on Mr. Leeds’s team meet and lay out the personal commitments that might interfere with work--basketball games, teacher conferences, Pilates classes, weddings. They arrange to cover for each other, helping make the busy season tolerable for everyone. Despite the auditing team’s six-day weeks, one Auburn University graduate, for example, is taking next Monday and Tuesday off to see the school’s football team play in the national championship bowl in Arizona. And Mr. Leeds plans to escape to New Orleans for three days to see his daughter run a marathon.

It gets even better: At some accounting firms, some employees get to to take off the entire summer; others get three- to six-month sabbaticals at 40 percent pay, allowing them to "chase life dreams like climbing mountains or building schoolhouses in Africa." And, says the NYT, "since these are bean counters we’re talking about, they’ve done the math: flexibility enhances the bottom line."

A summer without work that includes a subsidized sabbatical--who wouldn't want a job like that? For years now we've been hearing that law firms need to adopt the ways of accounting firms. But does the analogy fit? Could the accounting work style function in the world of law?

The answer seems to be yes and no--but mostly no, for now. William Henderson, the University of Indiana Law School professor who's become a guru of the profession, says the two professions  have very different structures. For starters, accounting firms have "relatively large and stable client bases loyal to the institution," he says, while law firms' revenues are dependent on individual rainmakers. He adds, "the legal profession has 'stars' while the accounting profession does not. . . . The homogeneity of accounting makes it easier to set and manage expectations because those expectations are more reasonable."

The nature of the work is also different. The big accounting firms are huge operations where there's more routine work that lends itself to flexible work arrangements, adds consultant Peter Zeughauser. If law firms offered more training and emphasized a team approach, they could offer the wide-ranging flexibility like that available in accounting firms, says Henderson. But he adds, "it won’t be M&A or high-stakes litigation. It would be labor and employment or regulatory compliance--what some lawyers call operational legal work. For accounting firms, everything is operational."

Most critical is that the economics are different. The star structure of law firms allow partners to make more money than their accounting counterparts, says Henderson. Hence, even though lawyers have a poorer quality of life, they also make more bucks. It's a trade lawyers seem willing to make.

Hey, guess lawyers are just greedier. What can you do?

What's your view? Will law firms ever be as progressive on the quality-of-life front as accounting firms? Can they be?

 

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 Photo: The Hudsucker Proxy

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Are you serious? Talk about comparing apples to oranges. Maybe when there are only 4 law firms that count in the world total and they have a statutory monopoly on a product (you can be your own lawyer but you can't be your own auditor), then we can start to compare them. The Big 4 are an oligopoly therefore they get some perks that go with it. Plus, most audit work I've seen or heard about is pretty generic. So I could see people being easily rotated off and onto projects. The two just aren't comparable.

I've always thought that the law firms' reliance on star rainmakers was inherently unstable, and the general unhappiness of lawyers these days doesn't help to stabilize them, as individuals all seem to be looking for a way to escape. Sure, they make more money, but how much do you need? I've heard it said that the value of money is the only thing that lawyers can agree about, so that's why they rely on it to adjudge their worth.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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