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Do You Really Need to Work So Hard?

Vivia Chen

October 15, 2013

Sadbusinesswoman_byRapidEye_iStockReady for a pop quiz? Of course, you are. You're a lawyer, and you love surprise challenges.

Complete this sentence: "I work like a maniac because . . ."

    a. I am a perfectionist.

    b. I work on bet-the-company (or save-the-world) emergencies.

    c. Everybody here works like mad.

    d. I am brainwashed.

The "best" answer is "d": You are so brainwashed.

That's essentially the finding of a 2012 study by an assistant professor business at the University of Southern California of young investment bankers over a nine-year period. Although the bankers in the study "thought they were working stupidly long hours entirely of their own volition," writes Sarah Butcher in eFinancialCareers.com, there was something more insidious going on.

As an example, Butcher cites Moritz Erhardt, the 21-year old intern who worked 72 hours straight at Bank of America in London last summer, then died suddenly afterwards. Though his recently released autopsy says he died of epilepsy "and not of overwork per se," Butcher notes that "tiredness is one of the key triggers for epilepsy."

Erhardt's case makes the USC study by Alexandra Michel (a former banker) more relevant than ever. Indeed, there's a lot in this study that will resonate with associates in Big Law—in particular, the way banks use "embodied controls" to push employees to work to the brink.

Let's look at some examples of "embodied controls" described in the study:


1. You live in an artificial 24/7 environment. Lights never go off, and support staff are available at all hours. After a while, this "parallel universe of insomniacs" seems normal.

2. You will police yourself. Managers don't need to crack the whip because young bankers will do it to themselves. "All the managers needed to do was to offer feedback on how well the juniors were doing and the juniors would regulate their working hours accordingly."

3. You will compete against yourself. "Bankers tried to work longer and longer hours in order to beat their own ‘personal bests.' "

4. You feel you are constantly being monitored. The open plan offices helps foster that feeling. "Because junior bankers didn’t know if they were being watched, they behaved as if they were and monitored themselves at all times. In this environment, subtle comments about people being present at their desks can be taken as cues to work harder and longer."

Except for the open office arrangement, associates at Big Law can probably identify with all of the above to some degree. So who's more addicted to crazy hours: bankers or associates?

This might not be much consolation but I think I-bankers are a notch more pathological than associates in Big Law. Lawyers work like mad because they are under constant pressure to bill (time sheets are virtual ankle monitors, no?). Moreover, lawyers often resent the long hours, while bankers seem to bask in the macho glow of insane hours. Lawyers talk about the need for work/life balance—but do bankers ever talk about that stuff?

That said, it's not hard to play up to the insecurities and competitive nature of young, highly driven professionals. As eFinancial points out, what's truly scary is how the system works:

When you have a workforce filled with perfectionists eager to compete against not just others but their own personal bests, it doesn’t take much to nudge people into a dangerous cycle of overwork.

I'm not into conspiracy theories so I don't believe banks, law firms or any other institutions are consciously trying to manipulate eager pups to extract everything they can.

But maybe I'm giving all those profit hungry institutions too much credit. 

What do you think? Is it your choice to work like a dog or are you being manipulated?

E-mail  Vivia Chen: vchen@alm.com     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist


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Lawyers may also be concerned about work life balance because a first year associate is usually at least 3 years older than a 1st year banker/analyst. Generally, they are probably 5 years older than a 1st year analyst, since most people don't go to law school right away.

Time sheets as ankle monitors -- a wonderful metaphor!

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About The Careerist

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: VChen@alm.com

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