End of the 50-hour Workweek in Law Firms

May 31

Being a lawyer has rarely been a 9-to-5 job. Between the demands of clients and cases, billing requirements, and the prestige of having an extraordinary work ethic, it has been common for a lawyer to have a 50-hour workweek.  Law firms often brag about the grueling number of hours their attorneys work, even advertising it when recruiting new attorneys to their firm. 

This sentiment, however, is changing. Priorities have shifted and young lawyers are demanding greater flexibility, more benefits, and better working conditions. It is important for law firms to recognize this development and understand how they can adapt their structure and culture during this period of change in the legal industry. 


What has changed?


Key evolutionary developments have impacted work hours.


Technological progress has increased labor efficiency, resulting in the same amount of productivity in fewer hours. From a social and philosophical perspective, an awareness of newfound time and freedom has led to an increased desire to design one’s life with fewer restrictions, including hours devoted to labor. Parallel to this, in terms of micro-economics, the importance of personal financial wealth is put into perspective with other needs.


In order to remain competitive, firms must emphasize employee engagement and experience. Employees want to work for a firm with a culture of care that satisfies their fundamental and intrinsic needs. For more on this topic, check out our article  Cultivating an Employee Experience That Supports a Culture of Care.


Finally, like most industries, the legal is experiencing a shift in how it defines success and measures performance. The term “organization” (a more people-focused description of a workplace) now carries more weight than “business".  Employees are looking beyond financial goals and regard purpose and job satisfaction to be more important.  



How to adapt?


We encourage management to implement an efficiency- and organization-driven approach to law firm operations that build on these 7 elements: 


1. Demand management 

Control the amount of work.

Law firms can manage demand by defining the scope of work that they are willing to handle, purging unprofitable or unreasonable clients, implementing dynamic pricing, and implementing client rating systems. For an in-depth article on demand management, please check out these articles: 


2. Efficiency

Shorter, more productive hours

Instead of assuming that working long hours means more productivity, we encourage firms to put more emphasis on efficiency. By gearing work towards efficient task completion, firms can facilitate a highly productive 8-hour workday. Despite the belief that more distractions at home will decrease productivity, it has actually been the case that eliminating in-office distractions has improved productivity.  Remote work opportunities should be readily available and considered long-term solutions  


 The enhanced flexibility of working from home also helps with stress management. For law firms who recognize this as a positive development, it is critical to put the systems, processes, and tools in place to facilitate remote work, and most importantly, remote collaboration, including cloud-based case/project management software and communication applications. 


The next element outlines particular approaches to structuring work aimed at improved efficiency:


3.  Work structure 

Improve productivity.

Emphasizing routines that develop better work habits helps with productivity.  This includes implementing focus sessions for individuals and teams, as well as outlining day schedules that support the team members’ production abilities and preferences. E.g., some are more creative and focused early in the morning and push simple tasks to the afternoon; others may do the opposite.

During implementation, it’s important to recognize individual strengths and use them to the team’s advantage. This includes training and development structures that facilitate the performance progress of all team members.

This approach should include training and feedback sessions to discuss approaches to continue to improve efficiency and effectiveness. PerformLaw developed an “Attorney Relationship Management System” to help law firms improve.  This system involves performance evaluations, training and development, progression criteria, performance expectations, and practice planning.

For more information, check out our article Creating an Attorney Performance System That Works.


4.  Workload and opportunity balance 

Distribute work evenly

Most law firms experience productivity imbalances with over-and underutilized employees. While there are always over- and underachievers, it is important to put the focus on good achievers and what it means to satisfy expectations rather than exceed them. Law firm managers can accomplish this by creating an incentive to balance productivity among the team. Emphasizing group performance instead of individual performance is the first step. Ultimately, firms will fare better with 10 good associates instead of 3 overachievers, 4 good ones, and 3 that fall behind. 

In the short term, overachievers look great in front of clients, but in the long run, this imbalanced structure poses risks. Overachievers cannot do all the work; they may be poached or leave for a better opportunity, while the underachievers cost more than they bring in.


5.  Collective performance 

Contain individualistic behavior

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, gearing the firm towards collective performance instead of an accumulation of individual performance is important. When measuring and incentivizing team success, firms can reduce individualistic overachievement and support a more balanced and efficient performance of the entire organization. For example, metrics that gauge the number of attorneys in the target range, rather than the average of all attorneys measured against desired performance, are more useful. 


6.  Equity 

Even out contribution and performance.

By adjusting the workload distribution, law firms can mitigate equity imbalances. When a law firm eliminates incentives for overworking, attorneys with personal responsibilities limiting their working hours can experience a more equitable contribution recognition.  

The most prominent issue to acknowledge is that to this day women are expected to take on the majority of household and family management responsibilities, effectively making it another job on top of their profession. A shift away from incentivizing long hours barely scratches the surface of the larger problem of gendered social role expectations. However, workload distribution policies can help reduce gender-based discrimination in the workplace.


7.  Key performance indicators and metrics 

Measure organizational and cultural performance

Beyond the adoption practices listed above, it will be critical for law firms to shift their success metrics, or at least add key performance indicators to the traditional, mostly financial determinants. This will include efficiency-oriented operational metrics including throughput, leverage, files opened/closed, etc. but even more so, people-oriented indicators, including workplace/job satisfaction, motivation levels, turnover rates, and training performance. 

In future articles, we will discuss how to implement the right systems to measure such qualitative metrics.

A final word of caution on this element: managers should ensure that these metrics are not abused, as quantification can lead to objectification. While comparable measurements can be great indicators of performance, it is critical to remember that the organization consists of individual beings, not numbers. Qualitative feedback, including open-ended survey questions and in-person meetings, should always remain important.


What are the results?

For managers who embrace this development and are willing to work towards an end to the 50-hour workweek, there are multiple benefits that will support the long-term competitiveness of their firm.

  • A reduction in hours spent getting the job done,

  • Increased efficiency,

  • Healthier work habits, and

  • Higher job satisfaction

  • Strengthened organizational performance and longevity. 


In the end, 8 productive hours in a day are better than a 10-12 hour day with decreasing production and the risk of burnout and resignation. A focus on team performance enables a more balanced firm-wide production and improves equity among the employees. 


Lastly, we encourage law firms to take this development seriously and assess their employees’ sentiments according to the factors discussed in this article. Those who choose to ignore this change will eventually fall behind and suffer the costs related to higher turnover. Meanwhile, firms that embrace employee experience can build strong and resilient organizations that will remain competitive for years to come.