Catherine Choe, Head of Legal Operations at Everlaw, the eDiscovery company, has called for the legal sector to adopt a four-day week, and if it were possible, a 40-hour workweek. But, aside from the lucky few who have found a more flexible lifestyle, can the legal world as a whole – famous for its long hours, a time-based economic system, and ‘always on’ culture – really make such a change?
And, ironically, it turns out that Everlaw was taken to court last year by a number of employees of the company who allegedly ‘….while employed by Everlaw, Plaintiffs and other Sales Representatives consistently worked more than 8 hours per day and more than 40 hours per workweek without receiving overtime compensation for all the hours they worked…’
So, that’s a bit of a coincidence. But, it does show at least that Everlaw is a company that is now well aware of some of the challenges here. I.e. even if the plan is that you’ll work a set amount of hours, the needs of the legal world just seem to demand more of you all the same.
Before getting into the bigger question, here is what US-based Choe sent out in a statement just before the weekend. She stated: ‘I think the legal industry would greatly benefit from a four-day work week. First, making every weekend a 3-day weekend would be a constant motivator to get through long, work-intensive weeks.
‘So many lawyers burn themselves out managing demanding clients and billing long hours, and an extra day off could be a welcome reprieve for them, giving them the space to prioritise mental health. If my work week were 40 hours, I would definitely be willing to work four, ten-hour days in favour of five, eight-hour days.
‘What I’ve observed though is that, with a few exceptions, lawyers and people in legal tech work a lot more than 40 hours a week. So maybe a more realistic impact of the four-day work week is to offer a day of no meetings and fewer emails, which would allow us to power through higher-value work with long-term impact, which tends to require much longer chunks of uninterrupted time to think than we get on a typical day filled with meetings and reacting to emails.’
Part of the inspiration for this is the campaign by Californian politician, Rep. Mark Takano, to reduce the standard work week to 32 hours.
‘At a time when the nature of work is rapidly changing, it’s incumbent upon us to explore all possible means of ensuring our modern business model prioritises productivity, fair pay, and an improved quality of life for workers,’ said Rep. Mark Takano.
He added that those who work over that level should then be able to claim additional overtime payments.
The Billable Time Barrier
Now, the idea of a shorter work week is not new. France, for example, has been a pioneer in that area, leading to higher productivity and many would argue a better work/life balance. That said, French people this site knows continue to work very long hours and laugh when you raise the subject of the now infamous ’35-hour week’.
Moreover, a growing number of people in the US and UK who are not fee-earners already work four-day weeks, or the equivalent. Plus, those lawyers who have joined flexible resourcing platforms can have a lot more control over their time, for example.
But, can a four-day week be the norm across the whole profession and for all those who support those fee-earners?
If any sector-wide change is to happen then it must confront one absolutely massive challenge: the billable hour.
Despite moves toward value-based and fixed-fee billing, law firms mostly still sell time, and most corporations remain relatively happy to keep buying it.
Associates have billable targets that are defined by time. Bonuses are defined (not totally but largely) by time. Your chances of promotion are affected by time billed. Partners are also judged by time, and also their ability to have their teams bag lots of time…and so on.
No doubt you all have heard about associates sleeping under desks and the like, or the one about the partner who was still taking client calls on their hospital bed as they prepped for a major procedure.
Some people embrace this. Many don’t. But this site has met lawyers who quite earnestly take great pleasure in working immensely long hours and take pride in it. How many still feel like this is unclear. Research on how many commercial lawyers actually want to work 100-hour-plus weeks is missing. The fact that many do is evident, but, how many actually do this willingly is unknown.
Another challenge there is that not everyone in a law firm is a fee-earner, and inevitably everyone else has to – to some degree – operate in a way that supports the long hours culture.
This filters all the way through to the suppliers of technology and ALSPs that work closely with the law firms. A law firm that has a virtual data room problem at 11PM on a Friday night amid a massive M&A deal that is closing that weekend will not accept that your IT support team are not available because of a 40-hour week.
Ultimately, the long-hours culture is defined by the people who own and run those law firms, i.e. the equity partners. Now, they in turn could argue that it’s the clients who demand they work like this. And the inhouse lawyers in turn would perhaps say it’s their CEO and CFO and compliance team, and just the business world in general, that makes them send out demands for help at all hours and at the cadence they do.
So, where does the buck stop? It is on one level a societal problem. On the other, private businesses can decide to work shorter hours.
But, if the amount of work stays the same, then you need to employ more people to do the work coming in, i.e. if they do less hours each in total.
More employees increases your costs. Although, working from home could be a blessing there, as it reduces the costs of employment to the businesses, e.g. less office space and less in-office facilities.
So, maybe Everlaw’s idea could be possible….but it’s a big could….It would need law firms to employ a lot more people, but it wouldn’t necessarily slow the demands of clients, nor the business world. Nor, if there were more fee-earners working shorter hours would all the people working in support have less pressure, unless they too also saw a less hours/more employees model take over, i.e. a kind of job share scenario.
The challenge here is then you may then get lower salaries, unless your employer is especially generous – which seems unlikely.
And so it goes. We really have built a massively systemic challenge for ourselves when it comes to time and money.
While law firms are private businesses and there is no law mandating that they limit hours worked, then it seems like not much can change there – unless they want to. And do they want to….? We need more research here, that is for sure.
Working less sounds great, and clearly that would be a positive change to many people’s lives in the legal sector.
And some people, even at the largest law firms, do manage to have a four-day week. Firms have got a lot more flexible in recent years. Although it remains a relatively small group who can do this, especially on the fee-earning side of things.
For now, the overall culture remains one focused on turning time into money, and there are plenty of lawyers who support that world view. Until those that own a large chunk of the commercial legal world, i.e. the equity partners of law firms, actively, and en masse, decide they want things to be different, then the barriers to change will remain immense.