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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Overworked, dissatisfied and disillusioned

As we are now in December, we can say with some confidence that for law firms 2021 will be another bumper year. Probably even better than last year, which was already record breaking.

The pandemic has triggered unprecedented amounts of liquidity created by the National Banks. Quantitative Easing was universally seen as the best way to avoid a global economic crisis, and so far it seems to work. For investors money certainly is not the problem. With so much cash and interest low or even negative, it is no surprise that investors are looking for yield. This for one is the engine behind the M&A and IPO flurry we are seeing. It certainly is keeping lawyers off the street.

It is fair to say that since September 2020 the workload for lawyers has been consistently at an extreme level. For more than 14 months now, many lawyers have hardly had any time to breathe, and it is taking its toll. Partners and associates alike are suffering burnout, severe work-related stress and mental health issues. Dropouts further increase the work pressure for those who still soldier on.

Throwing money at it is not the solution

Desperate to get the work done and trying to avoid more trained associates leaving, law firms have raised salaries and hand-out huge bonusses. Focused on revenue and profit, the last thing law firms want to do is NOT accepting new mandates or clients. Saying ‘NO’ does not seem to be an option.

Sure, every mandate will add to the firm’s bottom line. With costs being fixed (except for the extra bonusses) all extra revenue will come at no extra costs and will entirely convert into profit for the partners. It is easy to see that this is too attractive to resist. Hence the drive to keep accepting the new mandates even if many lawyers are at the brink of a collapse. Paying outrageous bonusses or raising salaries is peanuts in the bigger scheme of things, at least from the firm’s perspective.

From the individual non-equity-partner lawyer perspective, extra money does not take away the pain of being endlessly overloaded with work. A bonus at the end of the year does not reduce stress or improve work/life balance. Despite the extra monetary reward, associates still get a burn-out or quit their jobs. The current situation calls for an entirely different approach.

What is it actually that lawyers want?

Last week Thomson Reuters published their ‘Skills and Progression Mid-Year Survey, November 2021 edition’. This research is conducted among 1170 stand-out (identified by clients) partners from over 50 countries.

The researchers found that “younger lawyers, along with female lawyers, were the least happy with the number of hours they were working, demonstrating the widely acknowledged push factor which causes many in these groups to leave the industry”. The group expressing dissatisfaction with working hours is substantial — 3 of every 10 lawyers. In line with other working hours data in the industry, younger lawyers in the survey work the greatest number of hours and the oldest age group analyzed work the fewest.

Contrary to what we may assume, the youngest lawyers are not the group most comfortable with long working hours. Young professionals are placing more explicit emphasis on work/life balance, mental well-being, leisure, and other activities outside work, than was evident in previous generations. A higher proportion of the professional workforce are mothers and as men now take more active roles in child-rearing, it means that younger professionals as a group are juggling more domestic responsibilities alongside their paid jobs. Today’s under-40s are also conscious that their working lives will likely be much longer than those of their older colleagues, which further influences their perspective. Collectively, these factors mean that long working hours are a potential push factor for younger talent to leave law firms.

So, what is the solution?

As throwing money clearly is not the solution, what is, you might ask? The answer to that is twofold. On the one hand law firms need to reduce the workload, on the other hand firms need to focus on training and personal development. In order to understand, let’s break this down.

Reducing the workload:

  1. A strategic shift by accepting only mandates that contribute to the market reputation of the firm. Except for the largest legal markets, ‘National Champions’ cannot live of strategic work alone. The markets in which they operate are simply too small to sustain the 3-5 top law firms only doing strategic high value work. In order to survive these firms typically have to take on about 50% non-strategic/commodity mandates. In times of work-overload like we are seeing today, it makes sense to reduce this number. Partners should actively reduce the volume of non-strategic work.

  2. A more even distribution of workload. Analyzing data we have found that even when firms operate in overdrive mode like right now, the workload distribution between the associates varies wildly. While part of the associates make crazy billable hours, some others are still find themselves below target. In times of stress partners tend to rely more on the associates they trust most to deliver. Partners fear having to spend too much time instructing some others. Hence the workload imbalance.

  3. The use of technology to augment lawyers. For the last decade or so law firms have been tumbling over each other to tout their Legal Tech. One firm even smarter and more innovative than the other. While this has been hollow words for PR purposes only, some real world adoption and implementation of new technology would have made perfect sense. As the Creation-Production Divide Concept© shows, the value of the lawyer to the client is not in Production (execution), but in Creation. Yet it is Production which is most time consuming. Law firms could easily free up a significant amount of time by augmenting their lawyers with technology that will make Production/Execution substantially faster and less time consuming. Out of fear that this will undermine the business model (reducing the number of billable hours spent on a mandate), law firms have resisted taking the necessary steps at the right time. This is now coming back to bite with a vengeance. At least 25% of all billable hours consists of ‘dummy work’ that could easily be done by a machine. Just imagine how this could have prevented the current workload crunch.

Training and personal development:

Reading the Thomson Reuters report between the lines, there is something else that clearly stands out: the need for personal development perspective. 84% of respondents say they want to be more involved in client relationships, 62% would like to see more time spent on mentoring.

This aligns with our own findings. Our data shows that young lawyers are looking for personal growth rather than for money and income safety. The younger generation wants to clearly understand how the time they spend at the firm will help them grow and develop skills that have value later on in their career. Younger lawyers don’t want to be just a cog in the billing machine in exchange for an absurd amount of money. They are looking for meaning and personal growth, in exchange for which they are surely prepared to put in the hours.

Law firms are well advised to recognize this need. Failing to do so might well leave the partners that today are 55 years of age and up, having to work alone without a team in the future.


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