The Overworked Lawyer

  • Lawyers are well-known to be workaholics, which is encouraged by firm culture and excessive billable hour requirements
  • Being overworked not only has negative health consequences, but results in lower productivity
  • Firms can help discourage overworking by changing billing structures and offering flexible working options, as well as perks to better work-life balance

We all know how common workaholic lawyers are; attempting to rack up as many billable hours as humanly possible is the norm in most firms.

It’s not unusual for lawyers to work 12 to 14-hour days, 6 days a week, as well as putting in a few hours from home on their one day off. To be overworked is normalized and praised in the legal world—but should it be?

Why Lawyers Are Overworked

Required billable hours are the main reason why lawyers are such workaholics whether they are suited to be or not. It can be argued that pressing for as many billable hours as possible rewards inefficiency, rather than outcomes. Making some changes to how billing is handled, or even doing away with hourly billing altogether, may serve clients much better. However, this idea is not likely to catch on with most firms in the near future, though a small percentage of large firms have been willing to lower their billable hour goals from 2,000+ to 1,800 per lawyer.

Why Being Overworked is Bad for You

We can all agree that being overworked is bad for you. But do you know exactly what kinds of problems can be caused by overworking?  Now, we’re not talking about the totally reasonable experience of having to work overtime every now and then; we’re focusing on those situations where overtime has become “all the time” and is simply considered the norm.

Being overworked has provable negative consequences:

Sleep impairment. The stress, the computer screen, the lack of time to decompress before having to do it all again—all these factors contribute to not being able to get enough quality sleep.

Bad food choices. Being overtired makes the chances that you’ll make the wrong choices about what to eat much higher. Over time, this may lead to weight gain.

Heart health. Working longer hours raises your heart disease risk.

Heavy drinking. Studies show that longer hours are correlated with increased alcohol use.

Why Overworked Lawyers Are Bad for Firms

To reiterate: Occasional long hours are fine, and businesses definitely see positive outcomes from a few weeks of late nights to finish important projects or win new business. But the lower productivity levels that result from a permanent state of overwork is well documented.

Lower performance levels. By hour nine of a long day, fatigue starts to set in and productivity begins to drop, making mistakes more likely.

Emotions get shaky. As exhaustion sets in, managing emotional reactions becomes more difficult, as does the ability to communicate with people and make accurate judgement calls.

Loss of focus. The tedium of working on something non-stop without being able to step back and properly recharge makes it easy to lose focus on the overall goal.

How have you noticed the consequences of overwork at your firm? How is your firm addressing the issue, if at all?

What Firms Can Do

Sadly, it continues to be true that many firms support a culture of unhealthy work habits. Associates are encouraged to bill ever more hours, and competition between lawyers means that no one feels comfortable saying “no” to anything, less their reputation as a go-getter take a hit. Change will need to come from the top down.

One way firms can discourage overworking and encourage better work-life balance is to offer flexible working hours and telecommuting options. Another way is to essentially pay lawyers with vacation time by offering time bonuses as a reward for periods of working excessive hours or for getting notable results. Time-saving, stress-lowering perks that facilitate better work-life balance—like onsite daycare centers, gyms, and summer Fridays—are other ways that firms can help.