Category Archives: jobs

Like a wounded bull

Stephen Warne has drawn my attention to an interesting article in Justinian, a subscription only journal for lawyers. In the article, the author draws a comparison between pirate ships and law firms:

US economics professor Peter Leeson…recently wrote a paper on The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization.

Pirates created highly successful criminal organisations, and Leeson says that:

“Contrary to most people’s images of pirate crews, they were quite large. Based on figures from 37 pirate ships between 1716 and 1726, it appears the average crew had about 80 members … crews of 150-200 were not uncommon…

“Unlike the swash-buckling psychopaths of fiction, historical pirates displayed sophisticated organization and coordination… They successfully cooperated with hundreds of other rogues. Amidst ubiquitous potential for conflict, they rarely fought, stole from, or deceived one another.”

Leeson also observes that pirates considered theft aboard their ships especially heinous, and he quotes an observer who said, “great robbers as they are to all besides, [pirates] are precisely just among themselves”.

Modern law firms invite comparisons with these pirate organisations, with law firms appearing to have improved the business model.

Modern lawyer piracy is not constrained by the law either, but for different reasons.

Lawyer/pirates control the wording of the law. They make sure it can’t easily reach out to them.

On top of that they are in charge of decisions to prosecute. Better still, unlike ordinary pirates, lawyers CAN rely on the judicial institutions to help them.

The judiciary is full of “successful” former lawyer pirates, who find it difficult to criticise others for doing what they themselves used to do.

There is a lot of camaraderie and “collegiality” in the legal profession, but perhaps the best devices of the lot are “disciplinary tribunals” actually dominated by current or former lawyer pirates, which contain a smattering of “lay” people to support claims of independence from the profession.

When lawyers are caught committing lawyering crimes, they can be shunted off to friendly tribunals instead of the ordinary criminal courts.

Last month NSW lawyer Leon Nikolaidis was sentenced to two years jail for criminal fraud, having been found guilty by a jury in an ordinary criminal court.

Unusually, this jailing of a lawyer was not for a trust account defalcation. NSW Legal Services Commissioner Steve Mark…said it was one of the few occasions when a solicitor had been convicted of criminal fraud within a legal practice. He said:

“There is a perception that a lawyer acting in a professional capacity attracts conduct charges, but not criminal charges… Even serious misconduct issues almost never lead to criminal prosecutions.”

There is one big exception. As with those old time pirates, thieving off other lawyers is regarded as particularly heinous.

Theft by lawyers from trust accounts is a bit like thieving off other lawyers, since it frequently results in claims against fidelity funds which the other lawyers have to keep topped up from their own pockets.

This fits in precisely with a discussion Stephen and I were having in the comments section of a previous post, wherein we noted that the ethical breach which is seen as particularly heinous by the profession is the trust defalcation. Our theory was in part that such breaches are easy to prosecute, dealing with numbers rather than thorny questions of ethics, and the prophylactic nature of the fiduciary obligation ensures that any defalcation will be a clear breach. But this article provides another explanation for the prevalence of trust defalcations as an ethical breach: essentially, lawyers who defalcate from trust funds steal from other lawyers, and therefore are treated particularly harshly.

Whereas lawyers stealing from clients…well, who is to judge? Other lawyers.

Services are a hard thing to give a monetary value. And the situation gets particularly thorny when one represents a client, and the client loses. Strangely enough, the client doesn’t feel like paying the bill any more, even though the lawyer may have done the best possible job in the circumstances.

I think a lot of the problems with billing arise from six minute billable units, which were the subject of my second post on this blog, so obviously they’ve been a bugbear of mine for a while. I was trying to explain the concept to some non-lawyer acquaintances who were simply agog at the notion. “What, you charge for every six minutes you spend on a file? Doesn’t that rack up awfully quickly?” said the non-lawyers. Well, yes. And that’s the idea. But further to that, one’s promotion within a law firm depends on the number of billable units one racks up.

So six minute units provide an incentive to:

(a) be inefficient;

(b) be a workaholic and work insane hours to get ahead; and/or

(c) lie about how long something took you.

Unfortunately for me, both (a) and (c) are totally against my world-view. And once I had a family, I had no desire to keep on being a workaholic. So I quit being a solicitor.

I’m sure there are a lot of lawyers who are less scrupulous than I with regard to fudging the figures. They figure everyone does it, and if they just massage it up a little bit, who’s going to notice? The satirical book Hell has Harbour Views features lawyers who routinely bill 27 hours a day (even if they’ve stayed up all night, it has to be false, think about it). I couldn’t laugh too hard at this – too close to the bone.

The difficulty is in judging when a bill is too large. Little increases are hard to pick up. Of course, as I noted in my earlier post, the Legal Practice regime in Victoria seeks to ensure solicitors go into an immense deal of detail in their bills. And it requires solicitors to offer an effective invite on the face of the bill for the client to complain or sue. This doesn’t really fix the problem. A poor old client has to get involved in further litigation. Why not try to stop the incentives to overbill by abolishing six minute billable units?

Obviously, there’s a need for something to change. As I said in another very early post, I think legal services are beyond the range of many ordinary people. And this may lead to the high volume of litigants in person in the court system, who believe that they are better off running their own case. In some instances, they may be right: I’ve seen some terrible lawyers out there.

If the legal profession wants respect in the community, it has to look at legal ethics as more than just trust defalcation. Good legal ethics also means charging clients a fair price, and doing a good job. I believe that if we deemphasise billable hours, this would improve morale and efficiency in law firms, and take away the incentive to “fudge the figures”.

Any comments welcome.

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Filed under jobs, law, law firms, law reform, Legal, litigants in person, management, morale, morality, solicitors

Astro Girl triumphs

I’ve got a job for next year. Phew! It’s still just a contract job, but it’s great to have some security!

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Filed under academia, jobs, Personal

A mutual agenda

Well, this post is probably a bit late given the stunning victory by Labor in the Federal election. But maybe it’s good to have time to mull over things. I feel nervous dipping my toe into the political quagmire surrounding unions: but here goes nothing!

On the way home from work, I drove past a billboard which for the last month or so has a poster which said “70% of Labor’s front bench are anti-business unionists.” Or some such slogan. That got me thinking. Are unions necessarily anti-business? And are businesses necessarily anti-union? Certainly, in practice, sometimes the two seem to go head-to-head in a stubborn fashion which leaves both sides looking pig-headed and short-sighted, but I think there are ways in which they can work together.

I have never been able to understand why workplaces would want to treat their employees badly. Many of my posts regarding law firms marvel at the way in which firms treat their staff. It seems quite amazingly short-sighted for firms to put money into training staff and then treat them so badly that they have left 18 months later. On the other hand, I have never been able to understand why unions would demand so many concessions from a workplace that it becomes unprofitable or inefficient. That seems like biting the hand that feeds you, from my point of view.

So it seems to me that many of the interests of unions and businesses should overlap. Both should want the particular business to be profitable and competitive. If the business fails because the company can’t afford to pay the high wages demanded of it, or can’t dismiss incompetent staff, the union members no longer have any jobs, so it is in their interests to ensure that the business stays alive and well.

On the other hand, both sides should want the workers to be happy and secure, and feel like they have a say in how the business is run. If workers are unhappy and feel like they do not have a voice, they will be unproductive, resentful, and may leave the workplace. In the short term there may be other poor sods who will replace them, but in the long term, this is a massive drain on the intellectual and monetary resources of the business. And if employees feel like they are not remunerated appropriately (while directors and shareholders line their pockets) – well, it’s times like these that I feel Marxism has a point…never forget that there would be no profit and no business without the labour of the worker. It just doesn’t make sense to treat your staff badly or underpay them.

Therefore, a scare campaign about unions did not resonate with me at all, because if they both work properly, unions and businesses are not incompatible…as long as they remember the big picture and do not enter into oppositional game playing. And I hate the politics of fear, as I’ve said before: decisions made out of fear are not good ones.

I think the Howard government failed to understand the job insecurity which faces many ordinary Australians, myself among them. I still don’t know whether I’ll have a job next year. As a consequence, funnily enough, I joined the NTEU about two months ago. It feels better to have collective might behind you. And as a member of the union, I can agitate for collective bargaining for sessional lecturers. I know unions aren’t perfect, but otherwise I’m one little lone lecturer with very little pull or bargaining power. It feels like me versus the Giant Machine. I have a vision of a little manga me facing a giant mechanical robot, like those ones Astro Boy was always battling. Wish me luck! Like Astro, I think I’ll be okay in the end…

Astro boy

(Taken from anime.com)

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Filed under academia, election, jobs, Personal, politics, unions, universities

Childcare, guilt and the working parent

After we moved to our new house, I bit the bullet and put our daughter in creche. I reasoned that she’s almost 2 years old, so she should be able to cope with it.

The first time was awful. I stayed with her for three quarters of an hour before I left. She was very nervous and clingy, and when she realised that I was going to leave her with these people, she started to cry, and gave me a look which indicated I had committed absolute betrayal, calling out “Mummy, Mummy, Mu-u-u-u-mmy!” and stretching her arms out. She wasn’t the only one crying. I am afraid I sobbed the whole way into work. The second time was much better, but then she got sick, and had a week off. We’ve had her in childcare for a little over a month now, and of that time, she’s only been there half of the time because she keeps getting sick (colds, bronchitis, ear infections). I’m lucky that my Mum lives close by and has been able to come over at the last minute. I hope that the bubba will get more resistant to disease as time goes on; if she’s still getting sick like this in a few months time, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I wouldn’t mind putting her in for a morning twice a week, but from 8am to 6pm seems like an awfully long time. The carers there are lovely, and being a social little thing, she seem to enjoy interacting with other babies and doing little activities. But she’s always so glad to see me when I pick her up, and when we get home, she has to cuddle me for at least 15 minutes straight. We have a love-fest and tell each other how much we love each other. In fact, she says “I lubboo Mummy”. It’s adorable.

When politicians talk about the problems of childcare, they generally mention availability as the key concern. Yes, that is a problem, and the waiting lists at some childcare centres are insane. I was just lucky this one recently opened up and had some vacancies. However, in such debates, it’s just assumed that mothers are champing at the bit to get their kids into childcare and get their noses back to the grindstone. I would suggest that the reality is a little more complex, at least from my point of view. I’ve noticed that the debate falls into two camps – the staunchly pro-childcare and the staunchly stay-at-home advocates. I don’t fall into either. I’m a little more ambivalent. I think if someone occupies one or the other, that’s okay, but most mothers (and fathers) are probably more like me, they just don’t want to admit it.

I like my job, and even if I didn’t have to work, I wouldn’t want to stop working altogether. It’s good to have my own time, where I can do adult things, and have adult conversations. It’s also good to keep one’s brain going. But the whole time I’m at work, I miss my baby. On the way home, I’m impatient to see her. I treasure our days at home together (well, mostly…she wouldn’t have her afternoon nap and let me do marking yesterday, and she wouldn’t take her antibiotics either for some reason…grr).

Financially speaking, I have to keep working, because I have a mortgage and it has to be paid. I’m saving for all I’m worth just in case interest rates go up a substantial amount, or something else happens. That’s the problem of being an ex-banking lawyer; I can imagine the worst case scenarios all too well.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to make myself feel less guilty. I don’t want to make my parents have to look after my daughter all the time (they’ve already done enough with my sister and I – they should enjoy their freedom/retirement). For the moment, I’ll just keep going, and keep juggling all those balls in the air (mother, wife, academic, student, blogger…you name it).

P.S. Only 14 more papers to go out of 100. This post is my reward to myself for having marked 6 papers this morning. At this rate, perhaps I’ll finish today? In fact, perhaps I should stay up tonight just to get them out of the way? Hmm, tempting…

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Filed under childcare, children, feminism, Guilt, jobs, motherhood, parenthood, society

You can tell I’m busy when…

I can’t even find the time to write blog posts! I have received a number of queries asking where I am, whether I’m OK and indeed, whether I’m still alive. Yes, I’m OK and still living and breathing.

Shortly, I am buried under marking. I’m 40% of the way there. I hope to be at least 50% of the way there by the end of the weekend. I really hate marking.

Apart from that, I have also just started assisting law students whose second language is English (a girl has to find some source of income over the summer break) and doing research assistant work. Sigh! No rest for the wicked. And I’m still supposed to be doing PhD… Hopefully things will slow down after Xmas.

I assure you that I am percolating a number of posts. Just to remind myself for when I get around to it:

1. Transit lanes on the freeway (mutter, mutter)

2. Putting the baby in creche for the first time (traumatic for both myself and the bubba)

3. Are the interests of unions and of businesses really so different? (yes, inspired by that Union = Anti-Business campaign) I know both like to see themselves as antithetically opposed, but I’m not so sure.

4. Can you believe the Christmas decos are out again?

Oh yeah, in breaking legal news, Pants Man’s contract as a Judge has not been renewed. Who woulda thunk it?

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Being an un-person

I really hate being a sessional lecturer. Most of the time, I feel like I’m an un-person as far as this university is concerned. I do not have a proper office; I have to squat in the office of whichever person happens to be on leave at the time. I do not have a proper phone number; I have the phone of the person in whose office I am presently “squatting”, so there’s no point writing it down as a contact number, because it will change in a few months. I am not on the official website as a staff member. I’m not on the staff e-mail list. I do not get a business card. I do not get a parking space. I have to pay an exorbitant yearly fee in order to be able to park in the staff parking lot. Ironically, if I had a proper ongoing position, I would not have to pay this fee, even though my income would be higher. I don’t get sick days, I don’t get holiday pay and I don’t get maternity leave.

Worst of all, I have no job security or certainty. At meetings, people often factor me into next year’s plans and ask me what I think about the syllabus or a particular point of law. I have to quietly remind them that I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year. I don’t even know if I’ll still be teaching at the university, although I hope and presume that I will be. And I certainly don’t know what subjects I will be teaching. I won’t find out for a while yet.

It’s been going on this way for a year and a half so far. It looks like it’s going to keep on going for at least another year. Sometimes I find it soul destroying. Other days, I try to look on the bright side, and consider myself lucky to have a job at all.

The issue reared its ugly head again because I found out today that I was left off an e-mail list, as I am not on the list of “staff members”. I almost missed out on an important piece of information as a result. It’s times like this when I feel deeply resentful and angry. Other staff say, “Don’t worry, they’ll employ you as ongoing eventually, you just have to wait and be patient.” That’s bloody hard to do when you have a family and a mortgage to pay.

I’m sure it will all work out in the end, and this will be a faint memory. But I just need to get this out of my system now, so that I can go home and be happy for my darling little girl. After all, I work to live, not live to work.

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Filed under academia, jobs, morale, Personal, universities

What’s in a name?

According to this article by Catherine Deveny in The Age today, I must be conservative, insecure or stupid. Why? Because I changed my name (at least to an extent) after I got married. Where’s the option for “D. None of the above”? Deveny was inspired to write the article after seeing Jana Rawlinson (nee Pittman) successfully compete in the World Titles hurdling.
There are a number of reasons why women change their surnames after marriage. When I asked a close friend if she intended to change her surname, she just looked at me for about 5 seconds. Then she said, “My current surname has six letters, but only one vowel. Do you know how much trouble I have with it? And no one in Australia can say it properly anyway.” So she opted for another six letter surname, but with three vowels and three consonants. Another friend had her father’s surname, but she didn’t have much time for him. She was happy to ditch her father’s surname for her husband’s, on the basis that she may as well take the surname of a man she respected. Perhaps in Rawlinson’s case, she wanted to change her name to change her image. Fairly or unfairly, she did suffer some really bad press, and I can understand that she might want to ditch her old name for that reason.

What about me? I must confess that I didn’t change my surname until my little girl was about 8 months old. And I only changed it for home (driver’s license,  Medicare card, banking details). So many women I know have done the same as I did. My mother didn’t change her surname until she had me, either. I don’t think it’s marriage which makes the difference, it’s children. My daughter has my husband’s surname. And me having a different surname sometimes leads people to conclude that I’m not her mother. Also, there’s probably a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder in there somewhere: my maiden name looked out of place on the Medicare card, in a way that it didn’t when there were only two names on it.

I haven’t ditched my maiden name altogether. I still use it for work and professionally. This is partly because I had published before I got married, so I didn’t want to lose any meagre reputation I might have built up. Sometimes I do wish I could get rid of my maiden name altogether (partly because there was another girl at high school and law school with almost the same name, right down to the middle initial, and people were always confusing the two of us, on paper at least). But then at other times I feel nostalgic and glad that I’ve held on to it. It has a long, although not altogether glorious, heritage. My forefather who gave me my surname was a 15 year old pickpocket who was deported to Australia on the Second Fleet. He allegedly stole a hanky.

The other option, the “sit-on-the-fence” option, is to adopt a double barreled surname, but I don’t really care for the combination of my husband’s and my names. Also, it might make it hard for our names to fit on licenses, certificates and the like. My sister dated a guy with a long double barreled surname for a while, and apparently his name didn’t fit on his graduation certificate. And what happens when a double barreled surname marries a double barreled surname? Do they become quadruple barreled? Or do they pick one name from each pair?

Does adopting my husband’s surname (at least to a degree) make me conservative, insecure or weak? I don’t think so. Strangely enough, I quite like my husband. And I’m proud to bear his name. Should I demand that he bear my surname instead? I think perhaps I did bow to societal convention a little. In some Asian countries, wives do not take their husband’s names (eg, Vietnam), so perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the same desire if I had grown up in that culture. But it does feel nice for the three of us to have the same name – like we are a little named unit.

I don’t think the name changing issue is that important. The more important issue raised by Deveny is why mothers are criticised if they go back to work, but fathers are not. I think her rant on surnames detracts from the valid point she makes.

I hate that bloody “supermum” title. No mother can have it all. If you go back to work full time, it’s inevitable that your relationship with your child will be affected. And if you are a full time mother, it’s inevitable that your career will be affected. I have no illusions about that. Currently, I’m trying to do both part time, which sometimes feels like juggling 50 balls in the air at once. I think I took on too many things this year, which is part of the reason I was depressed last month. I didn’t feel like a supermum, I felt like someone who was stretched to the limit.

When babies are first born, they are still totally reliant on their mothers. It’s like the umbilical cord is still present, it’s just invisible and the baby is now on the outside. The physical realities of pregnancy and motherhood mean that women do have to drop everything, for at least a time, and concentrate on bringing up baby. But when the baby gets older, parenting is a joint effort, and the focus shouldn’t just be on the mother. There are many different ways of organising your parenting. I know of families where the father stays at home, and of families where both parents work part-time in order to share the care of the children. I also know of families where the mother stays at home, and of families where both parents work full time or almost full time.

I have no idea how Jana Rawlinson managed to win a World Title hurdling medal with a young son. I wonder if she feels like she is juggling 50 balls at once? Good luck to her. But I also wish good luck to all the other parents out there who are juggling work and children and everything else…

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Filed under childcare, children, feminism, jobs, motherhood, parenthood