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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

The risk of a two speed firm

Right now we are over one year into the pandemic. For most lawyers, working from home has become the new normal. The office remains just a distant memory. While today for all of us, the ‘home office’ is a well-established routine, certain drawbacks remain. In those areas where daycare or primary schools remain closed, young parents continue to find themselves juggling family and work. Others might have to share limited home resources, such as a quiet working space and internet connection, with other members of the household.

"burnout cases are steeply on the rise"

The pandemic has ushered in an era in which lawyers, for one reason or the other, are working erratic hours as lines between home and work have blurred. With nowhere to go, no commute, no business lunches and no watercooler-break moments, lawyers find themselves sitting behind their screens for hours at end pretty much every day. This might be great for productivity, but it turns out it is perhaps not so great for the mental wellbeing of lawyers. Reported burnout cases are steeply on the rise.

On 2 April LinkedIn, a social network company, announced that it would give all its 15.900 full-time employees a paid week off starting April 5. This immediate measure was taken to fight the high levels of burnout. One week earlier, Citigroup (a bank) CEO Jane Fraser banned employees from internal video calls on Fridays in an effort to improve staff well-being. The final day of the working week is now named " Zoom Free Fridays," Fraser said in a memo to staff. She also declared May 28 a company-wide holiday, called "Citi Reset Day." The bank is also encouraging its 210.000-person workforce to avoid scheduling meetings outside of normal working hours. These are just two random recent examples of businesses addressing the mental well being issues connected to prolonged structural working from home.

Give me a break

I don’t think that I am aware of any high-end law firm giving it’s fee-earners such a break. So far law firms have mainly responded by raising associate bonusses and not by capping workhours. Partners, counsel and associates alike are finding themselves working longer—or in some cases, weirder—hours as geography evaporates in a remote era but time zones don’t. This is something I find myself experiencing first hand. Days starting early with calling China and ending late with Latin America or the West Coast are not exceptional.

The ability to work literally all over the world from behind my desk has great advantages, but also takes its toll. No more moments of disconnecting during long haul flights. This is no different for lawyers, who are expected to be always available and responsive. Many clients, also working from home, are not sticking to ‘normal’ business hours and are expecting instant response from their lawyer at any time of day.

Complicating the issue is the fact that transactions are seeing a massive boom as corporations and funds unlock liquidity they’ve stored up since the early days of the pandemic. Looking at our clients seeing productivity levels today of 150% or more across M&A is not uncommon.

While transactions have a demanding rhythm even at the best of times, the 24/7 working individually from home situation amplifies the stress and the perceived workload. Doing an ‘all-nighter’ happens so much easier than before now you don’t physically have to go home from the office. Not so long ago China’s 996 working schedule was frowned upon, now many of us would jump at the opportunity.

Two speed firm

Closer examinations show that workload levels are not evenly distributed across all practice areas. Where transaction practices typically are extremely busy right now, some other practices are closer to normal workload levels. While temporary uneven workloads within one firm also exist in normal times, WFH is now amplifying the situation.

The notice that some lawyers are at 150% or more and doing all-nighters, while others structurally have a more normal work-life balance, is creating tensions within law firms. These tensions are amplified because almost everyone is on edge and easy irritable as a consequence of the stress created through the pandemic. Effectively there is a two speed firm. This will not be attainable if it lasts. If not addressed in a proper manner, law firms might risk permanent damage.

How to mitigate the risks

Looking at the market, we are already seeing an increased mobility of lawyers, both partners and associates. These are the early signs of damage inflicted by the two speed workload. This lateral movement is the consequence of on the one hand law firms that are franticly trying to hire more transaction capability to handle the work, and on the other hand dissatisfied partners and associates that feel ‘angry’ that in their present firm the workload is not evenly distributed. Simultaneously we see a double digit outflow of associates pursuing job opportunities that offer a better work-life balance.

"we currently see a double digit increase in associate outflow"

In part the present asymmetric workload distribution is a direct consequence of over-specialization and the way in which practice groups and teams are structured. From a rational point of view, it makes little sense that associates and even trainees ‘belong’ to one partner and one practice group. Certainly lawyers with less than 3 year of experience should structurally be trained in more than one practice area, enabling them to jump in where their contribution is needed most. Today this is hardly possible, which might turn out to be a costly mistake.

To change this we must change the way in which associates are recruited. This should preferably be done on a firm level and not on the level of an individual partner or practice. Secondly we should avoid over-specialization and give young lawyers a much broader training and education. Doing this will not only improve utilization, but will also foster better cross-collaboration between teams and practices.

"technology could help improve efficiency and ease the workload"

The afore mentioned serious risk of burnout is more difficult to address. The world of high-end lawyers can be extremely demanding. There can be no question that deadlines must be met and the work must be top-notch. Where basically the clients’ demands are what they are, I know from experience that the stress induced by a high workload is largely the consequence of poor project management, poor collaboration and poor communication. Fortunately these are factors that can relatively easy be addressed.

Employment of fairly basic technology could significantly help further reduce workload and increase efficiency. Furthermore a mandatory ‘lunchbreak’ of two hours works quite well, specially if this is implemented as common practice throughout the firm. This creates some downtime without interrupting business in any meaningful way. Encourage people to take a walk during this break, it helps!


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