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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cooperative behaviour is common in many species, including humans

Why it pays to be choosy
Cooperative behaviour is common in many species, including humans. Given that cooperative individuals can often be exploited, it is not immediately clear why such behaviour has evolved.
A novel solution to this problem has been proposed by scientists at the University of Bristol and is published today in Nature.

Professor John McNamara and colleagues demonstrate that when individuals in a population are choosy about their partners, cooperativeness is rewarded and tends to increase.

Professor McNamara explained: “The problem is that the process of natural selection tends to produce individuals that do the best for themselves. So why has a behaviour evolved that appears to benefit others at a cost to the individual concerned?

“In our model, an individual’s level of choosiness determines the level of cooperation demanded of its partner. If the current partner is not cooperative enough the individual stops interacting with this partner and seeks a better partner, even though finding a new partner incurs costs.”

So when is it worth leaving the current partner and seeking a more cooperative one? Two components are necessary for this to be beneficial:

There must be better partners out there.
There must also be time to exploit the relationship with the new partner, which will be true for long-lived animals like humans.

If these conditions are met, natural selection will lead to a certain degree of choosiness evolving. And once this happens, an individual that is not cooperative will be discarded by its partner and must pay the cost of finding another partner.

Thus when there is choosiness, cooperativeness is rewarded and tends to increase. In this way the level of cooperation and the degree of choosiness increase together over time, and cooperation can evolve from an initially uncooperative population.

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Professor Nigel Brown, Director of Science and Technology at BBSRC, commented: “This is one of a number of fields where modelling studies are advancing biological science more rapidly than experiment alone can achieve.”

In a computational model, the team considered a large population where, in each of a discrete series of time steps, pairs of individuals engage in a ‘game’ in which each individual does best by being uncooperative and letting its partner put in the hard work.

Each individual was characterised by two traits: a cooperativeness trait, which specifies the amount of effort that the individual devotes to generating benefits available to its co-player, and a choosiness trait, which specifies the minimum degree of cooperativeness that the individual is prepared to accept from its co-player. The traits are not adjusted in response to the co-player’s behaviour and do not change over an individual’s life.

Cash-rich, time-poor: it pays to be choosy
It may be the cost of success but relentlessly long hours are not to everyone’s liking.
Beware young lawyers – you may be walking into a war zone. The news that the Priory Group, the bolt hole for celebrities, has designed a stress-management programme for City solicitors should send out a strong message that you are entering dangerous territory.

Concern about the quality of solicitors’ working lives is being expressed at every level of the profession from irreverent comments on websites such as to the president of the Law Society, Fiona Woolf. Indeed, the society is taking it so seriously that it has been holding discussion sessions to “explore issues relating to working life at leading law firms”.

Stress, poor quality of life and a long-hours culture are commonplace among lawyers. And although these can affect people at all stages of their careers it is almost inevitably the new entrants, typically the trainees and associates under 30, who are most at risk.

In many firms this is seen as a rite of passage. If you are tough enough to survive it you have earned the right to move up to the next rung towards partnership. But, in any case, the business model for the most profitable firms makes it unavoidable that when late-night shifts or weekends must be worked to close a deal then it will be the junior people who will be called upon to take the strain. How could it be otherwise, indeed, when top City firms are committed to providing a 24/7 service to compete with their opposite numbers in New York?

It was no surprise then that the tragic death of a Freshfields associate a few months ago sparked off a debate about whether the long-hours culture in many City firms had reached an intolerable level.

First, though, be realistic. Lawyers in their twenties in successful corporate law firms are extremely well paid, earning incomes three or four times greater than their college friends who had entered, say, teaching. Long hours are inevitably part of the deal and most firms openly admit that if fairly frequent 12-hour days do not appeal, then don’t apply.

But while most trainees know what they are letting themselves in for when they apply, what they don’t know is whether they can cope with it.

Of course it does vary from firm to firm. Chargeable hours are not in themselves a definitive indicator of the total time worked, but whereas most of the largest dozen or so firms will expect about 1,600 chargeable hours a year from young associates, smaller outfits – such as the London office of Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons – will be content with 1,300 to 1,400.

But the wrecking part of the young lawyers’ lifestyle is when the regularity of the long hours becomes relentless. Being known to be compliant may mean that you are taken for granted. One of the key skills is to be able to dodge an excessive workload without appearing to lack commitment. As one associate said: “I’m quite prepared to work for several days at a time doing very long hours. But the problems arise if it rolls over from one job to the next.”

Most leading firms would claim to bend over backwards to put in place safeguards to ensure that work is allocated in a responsible way. And they normally offer channels lawyers to register their concerns if they feel they are being overworked.

These are, however, remedial systems rather than preventive measures. And clearly they often don’t work. If a firm has to send a lawyer to the Priory, then it has failed.

So are there any firms that have got it right? Not, it seems, in the “magic circle” – nor indeed anywhere close. Given their size and prestige, the complete absence of magic circle firms from The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for is striking. While leading accountants such as KPMG, Ernst & Young and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers feature in the roll call of the best large companies, there is no sign anywhere of an equivalent law firm.

So if you want to find a good employer, according to The Sunday Times, you must look outside the capital to firms such as Manchester’s Pannone, Birmingham’s Wragge & Co. or East Anglia’s Mills & Reeve. Alternatively, check out the medium-sized City outfits such as Olswang and Addleshaw Goddard.

At these firms quality of life issues are central to their corporate culture. That is why, interestingly enough, they have relatively few structured systems to prevent people overdoing it. Instead, it is the culture that stops it happening in the first place. At Wragge’s, for example, there are no hourly targets. Associates are simply expected by Ian Metcalfe, the managing partner, to work conscientiously during the day and then go home at a reasonable hour. And if they need flexibility to cope with domestic issues they can have it. Meanwhile, at Pannone, under the leadership of managing partner Joy Kingsley, the attitude on working hours is that people should “do 9-to5 plus one hour” and then be out of the office – getting on with the rest of their lives.

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