Our Lawyers Work Less Than Other Lawyers (And That’s a Good Thing)

Billable hours are the standard metric of productivity in law firms, big and small. The minimum billable hour requirement among law firms have become something of an unnecessary arms race. Big law hourly requirements of 1,850 hours a year have steadily risen to where 1,950 is the new norm and some firms push their associates to work up to 2,300 hours a year. Of course, billable hours do not necessarily equal the hours spent at the office, and the results can be a crushing amount of work for attorneys. Yale Law School has done an analysis on the actual, temporal price on the day-to-day lives of working lawyers.

Simultaneously, there is something insidious going on at the heart of the legal industry. A 2016 report from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association has demonstrated that about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed as people with other jobs. Only 3,419 lawyers answered questions about drug use, and that itself is telling, said Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author and also a lawyer. “It’s left to speculation what motivated 75 percent of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn’t there.” In Mr. Krill’s opinion, they were afraid to answer.

Of the lawyers that did answer those questions, 5.6 percent used cocaine, crack and stimulants; 5.6 percent used opioids; and nearly 16 percent used sedatives. Eighty-five percent of all the lawyers surveyed had used alcohol in the previous year (for comparison sake, about 65 percent of the general population drinks alcohol). Recently, the New York Times covered this topic in an illuminating piece entitled The Lawyer, the Addict. These profiles of life may seem extreme, but lawyers know that they are far more common than most would think.

There are many reasons for these disturbing trends but, among them, is an undeniable causal link between law firm cultures which prioritize nothing more than the allegiance to the billable hour, the subsequent loss of a work-life balance. This, in-turn, can lead to the subsequent divorce rates, depression, drug addiction issues and so on. Yet, while any overworked attorney knows this, most industry leaders seem to have missed the message (perhaps willfully). More than half of all disciplinary actions are against mentally ill or chemically dependent attorneys. Parental leave regulations are routinely sabotaged by legal associations and a 2013 survey by LawyersWeekly yielded that not a single partner surveyed thought high billable hours were to blame for the high rate of depression among attorneys.

It is essential to measure an attorney’s performance against organizational values that are conscious of attorneys’ well-being and personal lives. This is why we have made a philosophical commitment on emphasizing the quality of life for our lawyers. We believe in a progressive billable hour requirement (ours is 25-40% less than commonly found industry standards). We couple this with paid parental leave (what’s the point of work if you can’t enjoy your family?), flexible work hours, paid time-off policies and an enjoyable office environment. We find these initiatives have led to to greater job satisfaction for our attorneys. Subsequently, this translates to better service for clients, as they are working with attorneys who are more eager to be at the office, more responsive to clients, more prepared to provide creative solutions and are not pressed to overbill an account.

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