100 hour weeks: shouldn’t workplace law apply to lawyers?

A new regulation requiring Australian law firms to report hours worked by graduate lawyers has prompted debate within the industry over the demands on young employees. This is following the revelations that many graduate lawyers at Australia’s top firms may not even be earning minimum wage accounting for the long hours they are expected to work.

From March, law firms must record all hours worked by graduate lawyers and paralegals, no matter how high the salary, to ensure they are not paid below minimum rates or are losing out on penalties as a result of their long hours. Law firms are hoping their junior lawyers will choose not to take advantage of new industrial regulations requiring them to clock all their overtime – rules that challenge the profession’s traditional long-hours culture.

There are many decrying this move as bureaucratic red-tape, while others have argued that the industry shouldn’t have the privilege of self-regulation if they can’t adhere to basic workplace law. 100-hour work weeks are par for the course for young lawyers in highly coveted positions, many of whom see the demanding work as a stepping stone that will advance their career in the long run.

But with so many lawyers leaving the profession each year due to burnout, it raises the question: is it worth it? Quite apart from adhering to workplace law, investing in the wellbeing of graduate lawyers is likely to increase their loyalty to the firm and longevity in the profession, both of which seem relevant at a time when firms are finding it harder to retain talent.

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