A lot of Indian law firms are run like the personal fiefdom of a senior or founding partner. The senior partners are a law unto themselves and are neither accountable internally nor externally. Such systems can breed unique pressures and cultures, quite separately from associate satisfaction with their salaries.
A research paper published in late September by Jayanth Krishnan, who is a professor of law at the Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and studies the Indian legal profession closely, delved into the Indian corporate legal industry of more than 200 corporate transactional and litigation law firms, of which around half emerged after 2000, “peeling off”, as Krishnan describes it, from older firms.
For the study, titled Peel-Off Lawyers: Legal Professionals in India’s Corporate Law Firm Sector and available for download via SSRN.com, Krishnan interviewed 36 lawyers from 25 of India’s larger and mid-size “family and personality-driven” law firms, and interviewed and shadowed 25 lawyers who had started their own law firm by “peeling off” from one of the bigger ones.
The research paints a psychological picture of why lawyers leave. The study’s findings support today’s research published in Mint that salaries and bonuses at the established firms are “not uniformly distributed, but rather are discretionary”, being determined by a partner in charge at the end of the year. Krishnan says that this can breed resentment and perception of a glass ceiling for non-family-member lawyers, causing peel-offs to happen.
But a deeper problem that causes attrition more than salary, argues Krishnan, is one of work culture that flows from an autocratic and arbitrary top-down structure at firms and can result in workplace “mobbing”, which he describes as “an adult form of what is referred to in India as ‘ragging’”.
Krishnan’s anecdotes are unpleasant, but may not surprise many.
He recounts the example of one star associate who was promoted quickly up the ranks of a well-known, but smaller family firm. However, his open ambition to become an equity partner worked against him and, he felt, the other partners, who would only accept another family member in their midst, began working against him.
While the associate’s work product was good, the other partners overloaded him so that he’d work 18-hour days and his ability to complete all his work began to suffer, which they then criticized. So “mobbed with work”, the associate eventually peeled off and joined a start-up firm.
If associates don’t perform, according to Krishnan, they may face put-downs. One lawyer’s boss allegedly regularly asked associates, “How can you be so dumb?” Another would question the physical appearance of an associate; in other cases, associates were laughed at for their level of English, teased in front of others, and so on.
More subtly, one associate told Krishnan that in all his time at his firm, his boss had never said “may” or “please”, instead using phrases such as “get me this”, or “do that”.
This kind of behaviour coming from the top inevitably filters down. “As another upper-level lawyer mentioned, although he sometimes felt badly about it, he was very demanding on his juniors. Not only would he give them difficult projects, but he would be critical, and at times, yell at them,” writes Krishnan. “Senior associates at other firms acknowledged they behaved similarly, and they too conceded that they verbally accosted their younger colleagues. Too often the standard of behaviour would be to scream first and listen or ask questions later.”
The inexperienced junior lawyers would then be at the receiving end of abuse rather than the only thing that would have allowed them to advance: Mentorship.
Krishnan writes about two young peel off-lawyers, who, laden with unfamiliar work, had no one to go to for help. They couldn’t “get an audience” with their senior, who was never in the office, while colleagues at their own level were similarly clueless.
The work product received by the client suffered and the supervisor would blame the junior lawyers, who suspected that “it represented a deliberate tactic where the junior lawyers believed they were being set up to fail”.
“In the eyes of these associates, they were being placed in a sink-or-swim environment. They knew they were cheap to hire and expendable. Those few who ‘got it’—because they knew how to politic, learned quickly on their feet, or for some other reason—remained, and those who struggled left, which is exactly what happened to these two lawyers.”
On the flipside, not assigning any work can be a way of mobbing associates, can often result in them feeling shunned and resentful towards their colleagues, believing that they are being shunned because of internal politics and not being part of the “in-group” rather than their lack of legal acumen.
Such a work culture is not unique to law firms or even to Indian workplaces—I remember a trainee at the law firm I used to work in London whom a partner reduced to tears after days of limited sleep, and persistent and vocal criticism.
However, if Krishnan’s findings are to be believed, the “mobbing culture” in the Indian legal profession has different consequences, ultimately resulting in making the market more competitive with wave after wave of young start-ups forming in frustration.
Kian Ganz is a lawyer-turned-journalist based in Mumbai, from where he publishes Legallyindia.com