Despite the global pandemic, the legal industry has been doing exceptionally well during the past year. Almost without exception law firms reported their best financial results in history. The present year, 2021, is well on track to even surpass last year’s outstanding figures.
As time progresses, it has become evident that exceptional results do come at a price. For 15 months now, most lawyers have been working their butts off coping with client demand. Being forced to work from home, there were no boundaries on worktime. Working across time zones, workdays could become only limited by the amount of sleep needed. All this is not an issue if it happens incidentally, now that it has been the new reality for almost one-and-a-half year, it has become a major issue. Data show that lawyers’ mental wellbeing is at an all-time low.
In the first quarter of this year, more lawyers left their firm, than in the whole of the year before. At the same time, because of the amount of work, law firms are desperately trying to hire new talent. Partly to replace the ones that left and partly to scale up production. These two conflicting interests of overworked lawyers at the one hand, and almost out-of-control demand and the opportunity to make unprecedented partner profits, are at a high risk of spiraling out of control.
We are seeing a rapid rise in bonuses as law firms desperately try to retain associate talent and persuade them to keep putting in the hours to do the work. Today at some firms associates are getting $164.000 bonuses to keep working 100 hours a week. From my perspective, this is nothing less than sheer madness. It is not sustainable, and it is not a solution to the problems.
Talented young professionals are not taking it.
Earlier this year, in March, a shockwave was sent through the financial world as a group of young Goldman Sachs bankers in a leaked PowerPoint slide deck, asked management for 80-hour week cap. They warned that they might quit unless their grueling working conditions improve. An internal survey showed they averaged 95 hours of work a week and slept five hours a night. Their personal relationships also suffered as did their physical and mental health. The report even includes bar charts showing the analysts’ deterioration from job stress. Before they arrived at Goldman, the analysts rated their mental and physical health on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the healthiest, at 8.8 and 9, respectively. Since then, those numbers have plunged to 2.8 and 2.3, respectively, according to the bar charts.
There are other strong signs that talented young professionals are revolting against the present workload. All over Instagram, associates are posting photos of themselves working in remote locations—brunch, a beach bar in Miami, a funeral—with the caption “plz fix,” a nod to the universally hated subject line and the culture of managers having zero boundaries between their attorneys’ legal work and the extraneous, nonbillable hours of their lives. The ‘plz fix’ is a general theme,” said the Am Law 100 law firm associate who created BigLawBoiz, an Instagram meme account with 102,000 followers. “While everyone agrees we’re paid well, everyone feels underappreciated and overworked.” Lawyers appreciate the Instagram content that compares the lofty image of Big Law with the daily toil of being a cog in the billing machine. Associates recognize the absurdity of the prestige because at the end of the day they know they are kind of a document monkey. According to BigLawBoiz there’s a lot of young lawyers that have a lot of self-worth and ego tied up in the fact that they work at a Big Law firm in a major city working a billion hours a year and don’t really have much going on outside of that.
Forget about four-day work week. How about seven?
I hope you are by now convinced that there is a serious issue. Knowing you are just a cog in the billing machine and having to put in up to 100 hours a week, is not sustainable. Throwing money at it, like an increasing number of law firms is doing, is not a solution. On the contrary, it only emphasizes that it is about PEP more than anything else. Now that we are all slowly returning to the office, what can be done?
So if money is not the solution, what is? Perhaps we need to consider the 7 day work week. Bear with me, I am not saying that lawyers should start working 7 days a week, on the contrary. What I’m saying is that we are still having a work week and working hours that were conceived for blue collar factory workers at the time of the industrial revolution. Today, there is no rational argument requiring every employee adhering to the same inflexible working schedule. Professionals should have the ability to choose any day and any time to complete their work.
Secondly, law firms should adopt a work-from-anywhere policy instead of just work-from-home. Obviously that workplace needs to meet certain criteria as it comes to confidentiality. Lawyers should still be encouraged to come to the office, but this will only have added value for in-person interaction. Going to the office and just sit behind your desk in your cubicle does not make sense anymore. Offices should become social interaction hubs, rather than a place of labor.
Thirdly, law firms should improve their Project Management with great urgency. Part of the stress is needlessly created because of poor planning and unclear communication. Being an associate and having to check your email all night waiting for the partner’s comments on your draft, and not knowing how much work still needs to be done as a consequence, can create a great amount of stress even if you are not actually doing other billable work while waiting.
It would be easy to go on with other suggestions to relieve the workload, but the article would become much too long. Professional Project Management and Workload Planning & Allocation are great and useful tools. In the face of an assignment overload, they will only help so much. Perhaps the time has come for partners to get more selective in accepting new mandates. If work is abundant, perhaps go for the better clients and the most interesting mandates and leave the ‘breadcrumbs’ to the mid-market firm, that is a few tiers below. Why not choose quality over quantity and reduce the workload while making the work more interesting at the same time…