The tyranny of time

One of the delights of being away from the office on holiday is the freedom it brings from the tyranny of the chargeable hour. Nonetheless I enjoyed Michael Skapinker’s column The jury is out on family life and the law in the FT on 22 April, in which he looked mainly at what he referred to as the 50:20 ‘scandal’, that 50% of law graduates are women but only about 20% of partners are female, but which began with the fees we lawyers charge, following Mr Justice Floyd’s remarks in the BlackBerry case.

Selling time is not what we should be doing, and things are changing. How quickly is another matter. The problem is that it is considerably easier to sell time than value, and when I have argued the matter with my partners (most of whom are wedded to the chargeable hour), their usual reply is that if it works, why change it. The point they are missing is that either we will have to change, or clients will change us.

But back to 50:20. Skapinker makes good points

In accounting for the failure of women lawyers to advance to partnership, I think we can largely discount sexism as a factor. No doubt there are misogynistic lawyers, and others who secretly doubt whether women can hack it, but for firms to be engaging in widespread rampant, or even subtle, discrimination would make no sense.

First, the level of attrition among women lawyers is ruinously wasteful. The cost of turning graduates into proper lawyers is high, and the 50:20 figure suggests that well over half of the expensively trained female recruits are dropping out along the way. No profit-minded law firm (and, as the BlackBerry case demonstrates, lawyers are intensely profit-minded) would deliberately fritter away investment on this scale.

Second, if some law firms were discriminating against women, others would surely have the nous to snap up these highly capable discards.

Everyone knows what the real problem is: much of law, as practised at the highest level, is incompatible with family life. The pressure to bill for thousands of hours of work, so evident in the BlackBerry case, helps see to that.

But is this all?

Add to this Susan Pinker’s argument, set out in The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap, that the workplace gender gap is not the result of discrimination but of differences in brain structure, hormones, motivation, empathy and risk aversion, and choice. It may not play well with the sisters, and the argument is controversial, but the question needs to be asked.

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