Corporate law firms in India have reaped huge benefits since the liberalisation of the economy. Traditionally run as family or kinship-based enterprises, law firms have expanded and modernised themselves to become more organised in consonance with the new ethos and demands.
Even after three decades, elite law firms still suffer from a feudal hangover. Steep hierarchical pyramids exist within these firms. These, in turn, are perpetuated by incumbents seeking to consolidate their reigns and corner benefits.
The pressures of the neo-liberal market in conjunction with the feudal force have resulted in an environment where lower-level associates feel alienated, powerless and marginalised – resulting in a high attrition rate in the country’s premier law firms of the country. In this context, it is pertinent to understand how the exploitative structure affects lower-level associates working there without any countervailing positional power.
Top-tier law firms largely bring in graduates from elite national law schools as a branding tool to sell to multi-national clients that their workforce consists of ‘brilliant’ minds from the best law schools. However, such an edge as an easy entry to such firms does not translate into favourable working conditions for students from National Law Universities (NLUs) and remains a Faustian bargain. The idea of the abundant supply of labour is constantly pushed by the law firms to let their vulnerable workforce know that they are replaceable ‘cogs in the machine’; that there are many other students willing to work under the same working conditions at a lower salary than what is ‘doled out’ to NLU students.
Most premier law firms have a top-down structure where partners exercise disproportionate influence. HR is more or less just on paper, and these firms are effectively run by partners who do not have any professional training in human resource management. In the absence of any operational guidelines and effective dispute redressal mechanism, the quality of the associates’ professional lives depends on their luck of getting a nice boss. The problem gets exacerbated as the firms are highly dependent on the partners for revenues, which in turn fuel egos and hubris in the partners.
Moreover, the top-down structure serves to create a parasitic mode of work relations where the seniors feed off on the work of young associates without giving the due credit. As Sisyphean as it could get, low-skilled work (such as proof-reading documents, checking stamp duty, finding obscure clause in scanned documents running thousand pages where you cannot ctrl+F) is dumped on the younger associates. There is no limit to how much work that can be sent their way, resulting in associates feeling pigeon-holed and intellectually constrained. The constant bargaining of fees by clients makes it imperative that the large chunk of work is done by the younger associates in order to justify the fee charged by the firm.
Staying back late is part of the culture of the law firms, which demand conformity from their workforce. On an average, individual associates clock 12-14 hours a day. This longer working hour becomes a vicious cycle in as much as higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, and longer hours require higher salaries to justify.
The ability to bear these hours without batting an eyelid is a measure for meritocratic success in law firms. What goes unacknowledged is that longer working hours and stress increases the risk of committing errors and undermines the ability of an individual to deliver quality work.
In a neo-liberal economy, the issue that law firms are most concerned with is client-retention as the clients want the work to be done at a competitive price in a time-bound fashion. The pressure on the timeline gets further compounded in cross-border transactions. Such pressure gets manifested in how partners and senior-level associates interact with lower-level associates. Often, the standard of behaviour is to shout first and to hear the junior associates later.
What the inexperienced junior-level associates need is tutelage and mentorship. What they get is an intense amount of scrutiny and scolding, resulting in an environment of fear. Such unreasonable expectations, combined with an unreasonable workload, is part of a phenomenon called “employment-based mobbing” that solidify the status-quo and affect the upward mobility of the associates.
Excruciatingly long working hours, client-induced deadlines, poor management and a hyper-competitive billing culture serves to create a toxic culture within the top-tier law firms of the country. However, nobody speaks up about this. There has not been any concerted effort to protest against the exploitative work culture that permeates these firms. This is despite the fact that the students from elite national law schools who fill the workforce of these law firms have a certain degree of familiarity with the theories of Marx, Foucault, Kafka etc., and are generally articulate in academic settings.
An attempt to understand the paradox gives us an insight into how the entrenched hierarchy in a capitalist setup serves to silence the voices of even such people who do not fit into the conventional notion of being voiceless.
The prevailing understanding is that the relatively higher salary and perks lure associates into ‘false consciousness’ by making them a functional addict to their lifestyle without them thinking much about the insidious consequences it wreaks on them.
There are deeper, structural issues that prevent them from speaking up. Corporate law firms in the country are a closely-knit, small community. If someone speaks up, it could affect their career – not only in the law firm where they are working, but also in other major corporate law firms.
In the event one might possibly speak up, the standard response is to provide a quick-fix solution rather than acknowledging the structural issues which continue to haunt the associates. This is as Kafkaesque as it could get. Moreover, many associates would rather not be in an adversarial role against the firms due to the sheer threat of getting fired (without any compensation) or facing other adverse consequences.
The consequent job insecurity, coupled with shifting employments, have fragmented and atomised associates, thereby decapitating associates from any collective action. Consequently, the associates seek personal solutions to these structurally-generated issues. Instead of countenancing collective mobilisation, associates prefer to leave if they feel exploited.
The fundamental issue is that the negative elements of work experience is not evaluated through the prism of rights as the concept of rights at work is often associated with political activism and trade unionism, which even the associates reject. However, it is important to emphasise that trade unions have been historically concerned with issues of working hours or arbitrary dismissal and only through organising themselves can the associates bargain for a system where the entrenched hierarchy, if it should exist at all, is held accountable.
The author has worked as an associate in a top-tier Indian law firm.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty