Law Firm Culture: “Even Harvey Specter didn’t have it easy”… but easy was never the goal

Read Time: 20 minutes

It is evident that even Harvey Specter did not love each day work. When all is not a bed of roses even on the telly, it is ideal to assume - real life is far from the “truth” of reel life. Culture at legal workplaces has always been a raging concern and a topic of discussion (sometimes gossip) – during casual conversations at office pantries, court canteens, law schools etc.. Though the “law firm life” is often celebrated and glamourised, a number of lawyers – young and not so young, choose to step down, or as some would say, step up from it. Little is said and done about why this happens. The glamour, the monetary returns and as many may claim, the exposure, associated with law firms continues to enamour people.

A fortnight back, the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud highlighted the woeful culture at law firms. He said that the constant pressure of being present 24/7, 365 days a year is highly stressful and the lack of work-life balance that exists in workplaces causes a lot of mental stress.

Ironically, yesterday, a resignation letter by a young lawyer designated as Associate (A0) at a well-known law firm went viral. It depicts how he was constantly berated and humiliated by his immediate seniors and super seniors, harassed for taking any leave and asked to stay on his toes “24/7”, else “the senior partners who are like sharks will eat him up”. Though the letter points out a number of specific instances where he was bullied, a disclaimer remains that the veracity of any claims have not been verified and neither has the source of this letter.

Advocate J. Sai Deepak, arguing counsel, Delhi High Court and Supreme Court started his career at a law firm. The grind, he said, applies across professions. “We saw what happened during the Covid pandemic. Doctors literally put their life at stake. Ask them, is their time ever their own?," Sai Deepak said.

“The struggle is evident in the first 4-5 years but I’d say, grit your teeth and earn your stripe. The litigation space is heavily client driven and often, insomnia becomes order of the day. But the question is, can culture in law firms be better? Yes. Latitude must be given in personal emergencies, personal occasions.”
- Advocate J Sai Deepak

Another issue, he said, is that talent is often concentrated only in a few cities, despite hordes of lawyer graduating every year, thanks to law schools springing up in every nook and corner of the country. This leads to cut-throat competition in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which in turn creates extremely high-pressure environments.

Hyderabad based lawyer, Soumya Shekhar, founder at Remote Lawyer has set up her independent practice after working at various top law firms. She says that in one of her interviews at a law firm, she was told that pulling all-nighters is not going extra mile, but something that is expected of a "resource" working there.

"The very fact that your life becomes synonymous with your profession is a problematic concept. The concern of work-life balance goes far beyond just working long hours. The overall work culture of the organisation also contributes in assessing whether the organisation prioritises work life balance or not," Shekhar points out.

Mumbai-based Advocate Ashish Sodhani, who worked in the law firm space before he set up Parakram Legal pointed out that reasons for setting up his own practice was to do with an entrepreneurial calling and a willingness to do something of his own, and not so much due to lack of a work-life balance. But he does believe that many lawyers from "Big Law" setting up their own independent practice is proof enough for the existence of these issues.

"I don't think the issue of lack of work life balance is significant in a place like Nishith Desai Associates due to the processes and culture on which the firm is based. Having said that, does the problem exist? It definitely does. I have seen my colleagues in other law firms (particularly in Big Law) face these issues - burn out, with mental health issues, physical health issues etc. due to the sheer amount of work load and pressure. In recent times we have seen so many individuals set up their own practice and so many from Big Law - do we know why? I think the existence of this issue lies in many of these independent practices."
- Advocate Ashish Sodhani

Mumbai-based co-founder at Bombay Law Chambers, Advocate Dipanshu Singhal had his stint at a law firm, but he believes that work life balance is generally an issue in this profession, which has little to do with where one is working, but more to do with the rapid manner in which the profession functions.

"Mainly it stems from the fact that (1) every lawyer is made to work on more matters than required; (2) each and every client works in a different manner and the moment they engage a lawyer, they expect ultrafast results and want their lawyers to be always accessible irrespective of the time and weekends/holidays"
- Advocate Dipanshu Singhal 

Delhi-based Advocate Tushar Kumar who had a short stint at a leading law firm believes that law firm culture in India can sometimes become toxic due to a confluence of factors.

"The competitive nature of the legal profession, coupled with long working hours, can foster an environment where lawyers are constantly under pressure to perform. The hierarchical structure prevalent in many law firms can amplify this pressure, as junior associates might be subjected to demanding expectations from their seniors," he said, while highlighting that "the legal profession's demanding nature often sacrifices work-life balance, leading to mental health issues and discontent among lawyers. In some cases, the lack of transparency in decision-making and promotions can breed mistrust and dissatisfaction".

A lawyer who chose to stay anonymous pointed out that the hierarchy existing in law firms is not beneficial to processes and for ease of work culture, something that should be serving. Instead, it promotes favouritism and bias. "Associates and Senior Associates suffer the most because of the favouritism culture between Managing associates and partners as well as senior partners, because the credit is always theirs due to this relationship, even if all the work is done by associates and senior associates," he said.

The CJI had further pointed out that discrimination on the basis of caste is rampant in law firm spaces and that recently, a young lawyer informed him that he was refused a job because of his caste. This, he said, was a huge problem, especially because it was against India’s constitutional ethos.

While caste-related discrimination at law firms has been highlighted by the CJI, Sai Deepak does not believe that discrimination as an issue, should be restricted to caste alone. According to him ideological differences are heavily frowned upon, in a profession which is heavily left-leaning. “Wearing a tilak to the office is also an issue. These issues which are discriminatory in nature are also against constitutional ethos, so let’s not restrict these biases to caste alone,” he said.

Delhi based lawyer Alok Tiwari has been associated with top law firms in the country in the past. According to him, the very notion of ‘law firm’ itself excludes vast tracts of India which are yet to innovate or embrace law firms as engines of commerce.

“It must be said that in an ideal world, modern, tech-loving, globe-trotting law firms should have little to do with caste biases, but they do. And in some sense, everyone participates in this dehumanising ritual in varying measure”
- Advocate Alok Tiwari

A lawyer who chose to stay anonymous, said that she has never seen anyone being discriminated on the basis of caste at law firms. "I know of people who despite coming from marginalised section of the society have been promoted to the highest positions in law firms," she said.

Is a transition to setting up of an independent practice worth it?

Sai Deepak points out that he does not regret his decision to go independent one bit, "I knew what I was getting into. But is there work-life balance now? No. I am responsible for putting food on the table for others as well now, on the 1st of every month. Of course, I have control over the quality of work I do and I do not report to anyone, that's a plus".

According to Ashish Sodhani, an independent practice does offer its own benefits but also has a few cons. "There is no doubt that you are in control of your time and hence work life balance does get restored. In my view the question is what and how much can you take on and what is the cost at which you willing to take that on".

Soumya Shekhar thinks that an independent practice is well worth it as she is now free to fashion her own schedule, in accordance with her wishes."If I do not want to work on a weekend, I have the flexibility to do so. If after a hectic week, I want to take things slow for a week, I can choose to do so. There is no one pushing me to increase my billables or meet deadlines!," she says.



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