q The Truth About Long Lawyer Working Hours - Advocate Daily
Advocate Daily logo

The legal profession is characterized by long working hours exceeding 40 hours per week. Working late into the night and even on weekends is often branded as a badge of honour. Many lawyers take pride in handling the pressure of heavy workloads and deadlines. 

But what is the reality of long lawyer working hours? What are the consequences for a lawyer’s health and well-being?

Like any profession, lawyers prefer working the traditional 9-5 schedule. The pandemic opened opportunities to explore remote work, which was welcomed positively. However, this new work setup also meant working beyond their regular schedule—being accessible anytime. 

The pandemic and remote work aren’t entirely to be blamed for it. Working long hours isn’t new in the legal field. 

Data from the Legal Trends Report shows that 56 percent of lawyers continue to work after 5 pm, and 11 percent even go as late as 11 pm. In the same report, 73 percent admitted to working during the weekends. 

While many may boast about being perpetually busy, this culture of working long hours doesn’t translate to better job satisfaction. Those who stick to regular working hours report better emotional and mental wellness than those who overwork (68 percent vs. 51 percent). 

This article will dive deeper to understand better the lawyer’s working hours and how they impact legal practice

Long Lawyer Working Hours

The legal profession has long been known for its intense work culture. Lawyers often work long hours to meet the demands of their clients and their firms. Below are some reasons that perpetuate this culture in the legal profession. 

Impact of billable hours

The current business model for most law firms is billable hours. In this setup, lawyers charge clients based on the hours spent working on a case. On average, most law firms set billable hours between 1,900 to 2,000. 

Over the years, an increase in hour expectations has been noted. Entry-level associates must have an average billable time of 1,892 hours. However, most law firms peg this as 1,930 hours. 

They may need to look for another law firm if they fail to meet this requirement within the first three to six months. The pressure to meet these billable hour requirements often forces lawyers to work beyond regular hours.

The pressure to bill a certain number of hours yearly can affect a lawyer’s health and well-being. Many lawyers report feeling burned out and stressed due to the demands of their job. The high-stress environment of the legal profession, combined with the pressure to bill a certain number of hours, can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Long hours and overwork can affect a lawyer’s work quality, ultimately harming the firm’s reputation and leading to a loss of clients.

It is worth noting that the billable hour system has also been criticized. Many claim this business model encourages inefficiency and incentivizes lawyers to spend more time on a case than necessary. This can lead to inflated billing and may ultimately harm the client-lawyer relationship.

The “lawyer personality”

According to early studies, lawyers have predispositions to be “pessimistic, unhappy, and more prone to destructive addictions.” This is known as the “lawyer personality.” However, studies have shown that such exclusive personality traits don’t exist. 

This predilection to such behaviour can result from the intense work culture of the legal profession. The job’s long hours, high-stress environment, and competitive nature can contribute to this perceived personality type. 

However, many lawyers possess a strong work ethic and a dedication to their clients. This can drive them to put in extra time and effort to ensure their clients receive the best representation.

In addition, lawyers are often perfectionists who strive to achieve the best possible outcome in every case. This can result in a desire to spend more time researching, preparing, and analyzing information to build the case for their clients.

This entry in the Harvard Business Review summarizes the work environment—hypercompetitive and demanding. These are evident as early as one attends law school. It becomes even more palpable once they enter law firms. The fast-paced environment can be intoxicating. Lawyers have that need to prove themselves and stand out. It can be a good thing since the legal profession can be cutthroat. 

Meeting client satisfaction

In addition to the pressure to bill a certain number of hours, lawyers often work beyond their regular working hours to meet the demands of their clients. 

This is particularly true in corporate law, where lawyers must be on-call and always available to their clients. The pressure to meet client demands forces lawyers work long hours and experience a lack of work-life balance.

Customer service has always been the weakest point of many law firms. Results of an American Bar Association (ABA) study showed that less than 10 percent of clients could connect with lawyers. Eleven percent of clients end up frustrated when they call law firms for failing to talk to someone they’re looking for. Poor customer service is costing legal firms $62 million in profit annually. 

Better customer service brings in more clients. For example, clients seeking a criminal defense lawyer face stress and frustration. Lawyers who go above and beyond their call of duty gain loyal clients. They get recommendations, and it helps in expanding their services. Ultimately, it streamlines a lawyer’s success in the challenging legal profession. 

However, it doesn’t mean that lawyers should spend long hours to keep their clients happy. 

  • Efficient communication: Lawyers should communicate effectively and efficiently with their clients. Lawyers can stay in touch with clients without meeting in person.
  • Set realistic expectations: Lawyers should explain the scope of work and the estimated timeline for completion of the case. This strategy helps avoid misunderstandings and delays.
  • Prioritize tasks: Lawyers should focus on the most important ones to manage their workload efficiently.
  • Delegate tasks: Encourage lawyers to delegate tasks to support staff, like paralegals and legal assistants. Delegation can free up their time and allow them to focus on more complex tasks that require their attention.
  • Use legal technology: Automating routine tasks, such as document drafting and legal research, can save time and reduce the need for longer working hours.

The need for job security 

Job security is a major concern for lawyers in today’s legal profession. The fear of losing one’s job is a common concern for lawyers, especially in light of the recent pandemic. 

Many law firms have had to downsize or restructure their operations to stay afloat during these difficult times. This business decision resulted in a more competitive job market, with fewer job opportunities e and more lawyers vying for those positions.

New lawyers also report that law school debt is a significant factor in making major career and personal sacrifices. Fifty-eight percent postpone their vacations because of their debts

As a result, lawyers are often under intense pressure to meet their billable hour targets and other performance metrics. They must demonstrate their value to their employers. This pressure can lead to long working hours. Many lawyers work late at night and on weekends to meet their targets and deadlines.

The legal profession is still grappling with gender and race pay disparity. High-performing women lawyers are still paid less compared to their male counterparts. This pay gap adds pressure and insecurity for lawyers struggling to meet their billable hour targets. 

The Impact of Long Working Hours on Lawyers’ Health and Well-Being

The trend toward increasingly demanding workloads has affected lawyers’ physical and mental health. Here are some of the potential consequences of lawyers working long hours.

Physical and mental health consequences of overworking

One of the most significant consequences of long working hours is the impact on lawyers’ physical and mental health. Overworking causes various health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. On top of that, working long hours may lead to several mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Long hours of sitting and staring at a computer screen can lead to back pain, eye strain, and headaches. Overworked lawyers are also more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. 

Eventually, this can result in fatigue, decreased cognitive functioning, and impaired judgment. This can increase the risk of errors or missing critical details that profoundly impact their client’s cases.

Long Working Hours on Lawyers' Health

Long working hours and substance abuse

One of the most significant issues that arise from overworking is substance abuse.

The legal profession is a high-stress field that can be demanding and overwhelming, with extended hours and tight deadlines. This intense pressure can lead some lawyers to resort to alcohol or drugs to deal with stress. A study found that 21 percent of lawyers struggle with alcoholism and 28 percent experience depression.

The long hours and high expectations can also cause a sense of isolation and disconnection from colleagues and loved ones. Many lawyers work late into the night and on weekends, which can leave little time for socializing or maintaining personal relationships. This isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, driving some lawyers to substance abuse.

Furthermore, the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the legal profession can make it challenging for lawyers to seek help. Lawyers often feel pressure to maintain an image of invincibility and may view seeking help as a sign of weakness. This stigma can discourage lawyers from going for consult or therapy. Some lawyers may turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism instead.

Impact on personal relationships and work-life balance

Lawyers face significant stress daily due to various factors such as extended working hours, meeting deadlines, and handling challenging clients, judges, and colleagues. This stress can accumulate over time, leading to a lack of attention to their personal and social lives. 

Working long hours can lead to chronic stress, accumulating over time. Lawyers can become emotionally drained and disconnected from their families and friends. The high-stress environment of the legal profession can cause lawyers to neglect their personal and social lives. Often, this results in relationship problems, family conflict, and even divorce.

Research has shown that the divorce rate among lawyers is high at 35 percent, significantly higher than the national average. This is mainly due to the long working hours and the high-pressure environment that lawyers face daily. 

Lawyers often miss important family events, such as birthdays and anniversaries, leading to resentment and tension in their relationships. They may also have difficulty maintaining friendships and social connections outside of work.

Work-life balance is often non-existent among lawyers. They may feel guilty about taking time off or taking a vacation, fearing that they will fall behind on their work or lose clients. These feelings can lead to chronic stress and burnout, which can cause physical and mental health problems.

The lack of work-life balance can also have a negative impact on lawyers’ job satisfaction and performance. Lawyers who are stressed and burnt out are more likely to make mistakes and have difficulty focusing on their work. This can lead to lower productivity, decreased job satisfaction, and even professional misconduct.

Issue of Long Working Hours

Address the Issue of Long Working Hours

Addressing the issue of long working hours in the legal profession will require a concerted effort by both individuals and firms. Lawyers must prioritize their well-being by setting boundaries and taking time off when necessary. This may involve saying no to specific assignments or negotiating a more flexible schedule with their employer.

Firms also have a role to play in addressing the issue. They can reduce the workload and create a more supportive work environment. Initiatives may involve implementing flexible working arrangements, such as telecommuting or reduced hours. They can also provide support for mental health and well-being. 

Long Lawyer Working Hours

The COVID-19 pandemic opened an opportunity for change in the legal profession. With remote work becoming more common, firms have the opportunity to rethink their approach to working hours and create more flexible arrangements.

Long lawyer working hours are a significant issue affecting lawyers’ health and well-being. The culture of overwork is deeply ingrained in the legal profession. It is noteworthy to recognize its impact on individuals and take steps to address the issue. 

Prioritize the well-being and advocate for a more supportive work environment. When done, it’s possible to create a more sustainable and fulfilling career in the legal profession.