Ask a lawyer how he’s doing and the answer will probably be that he is super busy. Being a lawyer, he/she is probably really swamped with work, but it is not only lawyers who state they are busy. Random ask anyone working in an office and they will all tell you busy they are. Being busy has become a status symbol for the white collar worker. Few are willing to admit that they are working at a leisurely pace (while many do). People perceive social pressure to always be busy.
If you are busy, you are seen as successful and important. This as such is in itself surprising. For centuries the high and mighty carefully kept an image of doing absolutely nothing. For anecdotal evidence look at the acclaimed tv series Downton Abbey. The lord-of-the-manor’s main occupation is getting dressed, first for the day and later for dinner. Being occupied with work was something for lower class.
Much more recently, when I entered the legal profession in the nineteen-nineties, work at an elite law firm was at a quite relaxed pace. There was one of our more senior partners who used to go out for a copious lunch and then take a nap. He even had a daybed for that in his office. It is relevant to mention that this partner had a very large and booming telecom practice, so he certainly wasn’t lacking work.
What changed over the last three decades? While for ‘blue collar workers’ it is relatively straightforward to show productivity, for office workers it is not. Office work has always had connotations of bureaucracy and inefficiency. Towards the end of the last century, large corporations started to implement large scale reorganizations in an attempt to streamline their organizational structure. Slimming down their huge head offices was typically the first thing leaders like Jack Welsh (General Electric) and Jan Timmer (Philips electronics) did. Suddenly a desk job was not a cushy job anymore. Fearing redundancy, everyone in offices around the world started to act as if terribly busy all the time. The 2008 financial crisis provided extra fuel for this behavior, as did the work-from-home during the current pandemic.
Being busy is not a badge of honor, and it also is not an effective job-protection mechanism. Being forever ‘busy’ is actually stupid and harmful.
Let me explain why I think we need to change our default attitude if it comes to workload. Why we should aim to work less but smarter instead of forever more.
1 - Workload is an addiction
In recent times, people have started to strongly identify with their job. The question “what do you do for a living” is invariably one of the first that pops-up when we meet someone for the first time. Our ‘being’ is in what we do. Descartes in 1637 famously stated “cogito ergo sum” (I think and therefor I am). Today’s Descartes would probably have said “laboro ergo sum”, I work and therefor I am). While no one can take away our thinking, they can take away our job. This imposes a big problem if the identity and the job get intertwined. No job, no identity.
For partners in law firms, profession and identity perhaps are more overlapping, than for any other profession. Being involved in high level matters creates a strong sense of self-esteem and purpose. If I work on high-profile matters and clients, I must be a highly valued person myself. Abuse of alcohol and drugs by lawyers is typically not triggered by the necessity to work instead of sleep, but by the need to feel ‘on top of the world’ all the time.
2 - Workload is harming the business
Let’s focus on the profit driver for law firms for a moment. The main source of income is not the partners, but the associates. The mark-up or profit-margin on the vast army of associates is the most important contribution to partner compensation. Without the associates, partner income could drop by 50%.
Knowing this, the smart thing for any partner would be to keep as many associates working as possible. Any partner spending too many hours working on client matters is actually hurting the business. Partners should spend most of their time finding new clients and mandates, and to train and mentor their associates so they are capable to deal with the matters. Keep the pipe-line filled.
Perhaps it is indeed more profitable to have copious lunches and a nap, than it is to make insane billable hours. Obviously there is a conflict with bullet-1 above.
3 - Workload is poor time-management
As a partner in a law firm, you are working on several clients and multiple matters all the time. Each of which will have its own unpredictable dynamics. All things lawyers work on are also time sensitive. Keeping all the balls up in the air without dropping one is no mean feat. It requires what we call ‘3 dimensional time thinking’ to do it well.
Most lawyers do not have this ability to ‘virtual project manage’. Lawyers have a poor concept of how long things take to complete and of how different task are interdependent. The result is a permanent state of chaos and stress. Many partners have a feeling of always running behind the facts. It is exactly this that creates mental health issues, burn-out and broken marriages. It doesn’t need to be like this. A bit of training and education can bring instant relief, if only these lawyers were not too busy for training/development.
Smart lawyers work less
There you have it. There is no virtue or merit in working a lot. There should be no status in it either. Partners are well advised to work less on client matters and spent more time on client development, training and mentoring.
Partners are also well advised to develop some hobbies and interests. This not only helps to take the mind off work, but it will also make them a more interesting person, which in turn will help develop new business.
So remember the main take-away: workload is not a badge of honor. On the contrary.