Understanding the Reality of Long Lawyer Working Hours

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It’s widely known that lawyer working hours are long and grueling. For attorneys, a full-time role rarely means nine-to-five: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of lawyers work full time, with many putting in more than 40 hours each week—especially private practice and large-firm lawyers.

If we look at the complexities of the typical career path of lawyers, it’s evident why lawyers work so much. There’s so much to do—from meeting billable hour requirements, managing clients, going to court, and staying on top of case prep. With the workload comes a lot of pressure to tough it out with long working hours to get everything done.

But there is a huge problem with simply accepting that the working hours of a lawyer are, by necessity, exceptionally long and demanding. Normalizing overwork in the legal profession fuels an industry that suffers from burnout, excessive stress, substance abuse and mental health issues, and an overall lack of well-being

In this blog post, we’ll examine just how many hours lawyers work, and why. We’ll also discuss the health consequences of consistent overwork for lawyers. Most importantly, we’ll explore ways to manage and balance the working hours of a lawyer. 

How many hours do lawyers work?

clock on table

Most lawyers work more than 40 hours a week. It’s not uncommon for lawyers (especially Big Law attorneys) to work up to 80 hours each week. On average, according to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, full-time lawyers work 49.6 hours each week. Significantly, 75% of lawyers report often or always working outside of regular business hours, and 39% say this negatively affects their personal life.

What accounts for the variance in the number of hours different lawyers work? Numerous factors—from firm size to practice area to geographic location—impact the working hours of a lawyer. 

For example, the hourly expectations of a corporate lawyer at a Big Law firm in Manhattan are likely higher than those of family lawyers at a mid-sized firm in Ithaca. According to the 2020 Legal Trends Report, the average hourly rates in these practice areas is $330 and $265, respectively. While the corporate lawyer can pull higher financial compensation than the family lawyer), the big city corporate attorney will have to contend with billable hour minimums and on-call demands—which means more working hours. 

Why do lawyers work so many long hours?

What drives full-time lawyers to work beyond the typical 40-hour week? The answer is layered, but common causes include:

  • Billable hours requirements. When law firms have minimum billable hours requirements, attorneys are required to work a minimum number of hours on billable client work. When these billable hours are combined with the hours spent on non-billable (but still essential) tasks like client intake, research, travel, and communication, it becomes difficult to do everything within a standard workday. 
  • The catch-up cycle. This struggle isn’t limited just to attorneys at firms with billable hours requirements. The majority of lawyers—77%, according to the 2018 Legal Trends Report—work beyond regular business hours to catch up on work that didn’t get completed during the day.
  • Client service. Clients come first and that can impact lawyer working hours. Specifically, the 2018 Legal Trends Report notes that 51% of lawyers work outside office hours to be available to clients.

Are long lawyer working hours bad for your health?

stressed out lawyer

Regardless of the reasons, working overwhelming hours is not a sustainable practice for many people. Also, the pressures and exhaustion that accompany long-term overwork can impact lawyers’ career paths and health. 

Some of the most common health issues fuelled by grueling lawyer hours include:

  1. Lawyer burnout. Lawyer burnout is more than just being tired: As the Stress & Resilience Institute’s Paula Davis-Laack explains on this episode of Clio’s Daily Matters podcast, burnout is “the manifestation of chronic workplace stress.” By working excessive hours in a high-stress environment, lawyers erode their energy stores and become highly susceptible to burnout.
  2. Addiction and substance-use problems. Problematic alcohol-use disorders occur at higher rates with attorneys than with other professions, with a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs finding that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers.
  3. Mental health issues. Lawyer anxiety, depression, and mental health problems are prevalent in the legal industry. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found that 28% of licensed, employed attorneys suffer from depression, and 19% deal with symptoms of anxiety.

How to restore balance to your work-life as a lawyer

It’s possible to balance the demands of lawyer working hours with wellness, but it takes effort. Here are some key ways you can take care of your health and mitigate the impact of the legal profession’s long working hours.

Take care of your health and wellness

  • Eat well. Working so hard that you forget to eat—or eating unhealthy, processed food—isn’t doing your work-life balance any favors. Instead, fuel yourself to support productivity in the hours that you do work by avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol, and eating regular healthy meals. 
  • Stay physically active. Moving your body with physical activity is an important factor when it comes to lawyer wellness and helping to manage anxiety.
  • Prioritize downtime and time off. Rest is critical to keeping burnout at bay and sleep deprivation negatively impacts our health. But rest is often the first thing to go when you’re working long hours. To mitigate this, you might need to schedule downtime and make a concerted effort to prioritize rest. 
  • Set boundaries. Know your limits, articulate them, and stand by them. It can be challenging, but learning to say no when you need to can improve your work-life balance. For more on the importance of setting boundaries for lawyers, listen to this episode of Daily Matters with Master Certified Coach Terry DeMeo
  • Practice mindfulness. As attorney and author Jeena Cho explains on the Daily Matters podcast, mindfulness and meditation can be powerful tools for supporting mental wellness for lawyers. If you need help tapping into mindfulness, you can also use technology to help, with many apps available to help you manage stress and prevent burnout.
  • Maintain social connections. When you’re hyper-focused on your career, it can be easy to let social connections slip through the cracks. However, these connections are essential for your overall health and wellbeing

Learn more about lawyer wellness and mental health from experts like Paula Davis-Laack, Founder and CEO of The Stress & Resilience Institute, and Jeena Cho, Mindfulness Educator at The Resilient Lawyer in an episode of the Daily Matters podcast

Strategies to create balance in your work and life

There are also steps you can take to restore—or create—the balance in your work and life:

  • Seek work with meaning. Working long hours can be stressful. But if you’re doing work you care about and find meaningful, it can feel less taxing.
  • Delegate. Assess your daily tasks with an honest eye—are you doing tasks that someone else could be doing? Whether it’s delegating work to administrative staff, other attorneys, or outsourcing work, if you can ethically and securely delegate some tasks, that can free up hours in your day.
  • Work smarter. Using technology to streamline and automate administrative and non-billable tasks cuts down on your lawyer working hours while getting the same (or even better) work results. Tracking time in real-time by using software like Clio Manage’s legal time and expense tracking software, for example, saves time at work by making your daily processes more efficient. For guidance on how to achieve this, watch this webinar on how to bill an extra eight hours every week.
  • Make your own hours. If you can’t find a balance where you are, you might want to consider alternative ways to build your own vision of work-life balance, such as starting your own law firm.

A step towards a healthier and more balanced life as a lawyer

healthy lawyer

There are so many hours in a day, and the working hours of a lawyer tend to take up most of them. Factors like billable hours requirements and heavy caseloads make long lawyer working hours prevalent in the legal industry. Because of this, lawyers tend to regularly work more than 40 hours a week can equate to stress, a lack of balance, and burnout. Understand the causes of long lawyer working hours and take steps to mitigate them and promote wellness. This way, you can set yourself up for a happier and more balanced life as a lawyer.  

 

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