Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Call Us Before Quiet Quitting

Quiet quitting—this alliterative phrase has arisen in our society over the last few months. It is kind of an upscale version of working to rule, perhaps more appropriate to professional and office workers, as opposed to union members. And it may be occurring in a legal workplace near you.

My favourite working to rule story occurred where I was working while going to university. Desktop publishing was new (this was in the early 1980s) and we had a small division pursuing it. In those days, word processing involved entering technical commands within caret brackets specifying sizes, etc., for every indentation, paragraph break and table. One employee in this group committed to faith healing that prayer supported by faith, could solve her physical ailments. She had vision issues and wore thick glasses, but she prayed to receive perfect vision and then, as a sign of faith, stopped wearing her glasses (at work, driving—all of the activities where vision is essential.)

There were other issues with this employee, but when her accuracy and performance fell off a cliff without her glasses, my boss decided she had no choice but to terminate her (please note that this was before we had the human rights legislation we now have.) Filled with dread, my boss called the employee into her office and delivered the termination message. Expecting tears or anger or resistance, she was shocked when the employee began yelling “Praise the Lord!” It seems that she wanted to quit her job which she hated but her husband was against it, so she was praying to be fired.

Working to rule was not common in law offices when I was practicing, but it still happened. A lawyer burned out or stopped caring, perhaps because the firm made it clear that, despite the lawyer’s dedication and hard work, they weren’t sure that that the lawyer was partnership material.  In my associate days, this could be a signal that you might want to look for a job elsewhere so that you didn’t face termination at the next review date.

But some lawyers felt that the decision that they should have to leave was unfair and refused to go quietly into that good night. They stayed, doing what they were willing to do in a job where they had no future, willing to see what happened when they worked on their own terms. I am not aware of any situations where a firm then “discovered” that this lawyer was the secret sauce essential to the firm’s success and begged the lawyer to stay. I am not saying that it has never happened—it theoretically could, but has it?

To me, quiet quitting is similar, but it doesn’t involve the element of the firm communicating that the lawyer just wasn’t quite meeting firm standards and that they would have to up their game to advance, when the lawyer was giving it everything they’d got.

Lawyers, and other employees, who are contemplating quiet quitting are looking at what their firm, or other employer, offers and expects, and deciding that the value equation doesn’t work for them anymore—or perhaps it never did, but the COVID experience made them aware of it as well as the concept of quiet quitting. What if they could just scale back what they are doing at work to make it consistent with their work-life or other goals and they could still succeed? And if worse came to worse, the firm could terminate them with severance, and they would figure out what the next chapter in their lives would be.

I caught a radio call-in program last week and heard stories from Albertans who had opted for quiet quitting. One talked about her (former) workplace where they had been asked to “exceed expectations” for more than ten years, and she was burned out. She decided to try meeting core expectations only and not putting in extra efforts or going beyond. I can’t remember how her story ended, but I was struck by the reference to “exceeding expectations” because it has been an implicit if not explicit requirement in almost all my legal roles.

My articling student experience was not typical—ten months at the Courts and then five months at a firm where I was off cycle with the other students. But as an associate, I quickly discovered that just meeting expectations wasn’t going to cut it, and that I needed to find a new gear that I didn’t know existed. My overdrive proved adequate, but I had nothing left for the rest of my life, which I realized while I was on maternity leave with my first baby. I couldn’t see how I could perform at my previous work level and have any gas in the tank for my son. I put in a proposal to work reduced hours which seemed to work.

After my second child was born, I knew I wanted something different, so I decided that I would return to my reduced hours arrangement and do as much as I could for about six months, and then tell my firm that I had decided my future lay elsewhere and would give notice so I could start a job search, but an opportunity came my way after a shorter period and I left.

Would I have opted to quietly quit if my new opportunity had not arisen? I don’t think so because I was passionate about reduced hours arrangements being viewed as viable. But if I hadn’t had that factor, who knows.

We saw quiet quitting at my firm. There was a partner who worked exclusively on a multi-year file, and when the file concluded and all the loose ends were tied up, he had no practice and no work. Rumour has it that he deliberately recorded zero hours one month as an attempt to show the firm that they needed to do more to support lawyers like him. Instead, they terminated him.

We had an associate who gave six months’ notice of a pending move to another jurisdiction. I don’t know if she was quiet quitting, but people stopped giving her work, and then the firm terminated her before her chosen termination date.

Law firms are different from most employers because there is a clear and available metric of whether work is being performed: recorded hours. You all know your own employer and how they communicate when someone’s hours drop off. The first month may not be serious—everyone has a bad month from time to time. But the number of months before you will be called out for reduced production is finite.

With COVID and working remotely, our perspectives about spending long hours in the office have changed. Lawyers are asserting that they want work-life balance and greater flexibility. Rumours are circulating that some firms may be lowering the metaphorical hammer about in-office expectations, and this may be the perfect breeding ground for quiet quitting.

I can imagine lawyers deciding that they will minimally comply if they no longer care whether they keep their positions. Put another way, if they can work on their own terms, they will stay, and if their efforts are not enough, the firm will have to fire them, perhaps paying some severance to tide the lawyer over for a job search.

If you are leaning towards this option if your firm nudges lawyers back to pre-COVID practice, please consider calling Assist for peer support. You might chat about this strategy with your peers at the office (or in the safety of your homes), but you can’t discuss it with a more senior lawyer at your firm. And you may not know more senior lawyers to whom you can chat.

This is where Assist’s Peer Support program comes in. We can connect you with a lawyer in a different firm or who practices in a different environment who can listen to your concerns and share their experiences—both what they did and what they observed—so that you can make the best possible decision about your future. All peer support interactions are confidential.

COVID may have changed some of our perspectives, but it hasn’t changed in one important respect: your career is important to you, and you want to ensure that career changes will set you up for success in the long run, whatever that looks like for you.

If you are a lawyer with experience with quiet quitting or working to rule (for lack of a better term), would you be willing to share your experience with a lawyer who is considering this option? While we will be conducting full in-person peer support training later in the fall, I can do a quick one-on-one session with you to equip you to participate in our program (with the full session to follow.) And if you are already a peer support volunteer, would you please let us know if this is an area where you would like to provide support?

If there is demand, we could also host a panel discussion about quiet quitting and alternative ways of responding to workplace changes or the return to ever-increasing expectations that you must exceed. Again, please let us know.

Somewhere along the line, lawyers developed the belief that they are super-beings, able to leap long debentures and stop inappropriate questioning like a speeding bullet. We must out-perform our colleagues—higher, faster, stronger—despite illness or life situations. And we show no weakness.

I feel burned out just writing about it. We are human beings, and we can use our humanness to be effective lawyers. We can enhance our emotional intelligence to become better lawyers, as described in a recent article:

In Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, Dr. Larry Richard discussed persistent patterns and traits found among lawyers. Knowing these, and having the emotional intelligence about their impact, can help us develop and perform professionally. For example, lawyers average in the 90th percentile for skepticism (compared to the 50th percentile for the general public). Great in some transactional negotiations or litigation, but not necessarily as effective in circumstances where trust and collaboration are more effective. Another trait is urgency, where lawyers averaged in the 71st percentile, compared to the 50th for the general public. Again, admirable in circumstances that need results fast and moving matters forward; but this same trait may also cause tensions in critical relationships (think clients, supervisors or mentees), where the same behavior can appear like poor listening or lack of attention. A third trait was that of resilience, and here we see that lawyers averaged in the 30th percentile, compared to 50th for the general public. So, while the world around us may think we are confident, lawyers may well be less open to feedback and more sensitive to mistakes or failure. Being aware is a tremendous first step.

If returning to pre-COVID practice style is filling you with dread, you are not alone. Lawyers have dealt with similar issues for many years, and we can dial in to their experiences so that we can make the best decisions for ourselves.

Can you name a famous actor who graduated from law school and worked as a trainee before abandoning law? Lawyers can change jobs or even careers and have great lives. Dare to dream!

Call us. We can help.