Balancing the Work Ethic

Law Firms need a sense of balance in their work ethic expectations

“My family and friends think I am mad!”, I was told by a young lawyer recently.  Fairly new out of law school after the attaining of two degrees, he leaves home for the office at 5.30am to miss the traffic and is in the office until at least 9pm each night.  He also works most weekends.  In his firm, the expectation is for hard work and long hours.  In contrast, I was recently nearly knocked over in the rush for the door at about 6pm at another larger firm, where moderate productivity has recently resulted in mediocre results.

A colleague of mine in my consulting firm is fond at looking at the mediocre utilisation statistics in average-performing firms and posing the question “So what do these people do in the second half of the month?”  At the same time, we all know about the stresses and strains of working in high performing firms.

There are no rights and wrongs here, but I cannot help feeling that some lawyers desire both an easy life and high rewards – an equation which does not sit easily. 

So what is the right balance?  What is not often done is to look at the position from the point of view of the client.  I have recently conducted a host of in-depth client interviews and from these, I draw four rather generic insights into issues that touch upon time and effort commitments on the part of their lawyers. 

First, clients increasingly demand more for less from their lawyers, and match high expectations for work quality with sustained pressure on fee levels.  Sophisticated clients justify their fee pressures by pointing to the need for systems, processes and efficiencies to avoid wheels being reinvented at their expense

Second, clients do want their lawyers to provide value for their fees by dedicating themselves responsibly to their client matters.  They also want lawyers to be both responsive and accessible, sometimes at unreasonable hours of day and night.

Second, and in contrast, they want their lawyers to be fresh and attentive and not exhausted and distracted.  A client would never want a lawyer to produce slipshod work or to be too tired to think straight

Third, clients expect their lawyers to delegate responsibly and effectively so that work can be done at the right level, but are always reluctant to pay for the internal conferences and engagement strategy sessions that will enable appropriate discussions of client objectives.  In the same vein, I have recently heard in-house lawyers complain that an external law firm was over-delegating work to junior lawyers with the result that work fell short of the mark and had to be re-done.

Finally, clients do not want to see their matters over-lawyered and resist over-academic approaches which result in long and tedious recitations of the law.  In short, they want their lawyers to do work that they consider worth paying for. 

 All these issues require a sense of balance in law firms to the work ethic expectation in their firms.  Whilst there can be no one rule that fits all firms, I offer four principles that may assist.

First, I think that – subject of course to employment regulations – a time commitment of fifty hours per week for lawyers at all levels is about right.  This level of commitment allows for an appropriate work-life balance and also for lawyers to be able to commit time to non-chargeable matters such as team development, mentoring, business development and client relationship management.  Start-up law firms however often require even greater work efforts and input,

Second, and to balance the first principle, our profession (which is increasingly and rightly becoming much more balanced as between male and female lawyers), must offer flexibility for lawyers who have family and children commitments.

Third, utilisation averages of around 1,100 hours per annum of chargeable time is arguably too low an expectation for any profession that provides itself on a hard work ethic.  Most regional and commercial firms ought to be able to achieve an average somewhat higher than that, and individual targets of 1600 or more chargeable hours per  annum for lawyers at all levels ought to be achievable provided the pipeline of work exists to allow such levels to be achieved. 

Fourth, in an environment where many firms are operating at levels of considerably less than full productivity, the alignment of volume and mix both with appropriate staffing levels and with a sustained business development effort becomes one of the biggest management and leadership challenges.  This challenge simply does not get answered by default or serendipity but requires sustained management control and intervention

Fifth, effort must be balanced by value, and wasted time must therefore be reduced or eradicated by efficiency measures wherever practicable. 

 The work ethic challenge is not confined just to lawyers.  I have recently spoken to a considerable number of young professionals outside the law who are at the start of their careers.  In this most difficult of decades, I find many of them working no less than ten hour days.  Added to this, I have had the great honour to work with a number of law firms in emerging jurisdictions in Asia and Africa, all of whom put most European lawyers to shame in their dedication and commitment to their careers. It is true that nothing comes for nothing.  There are many ingredients to the successful (and profitable) law firm but a hard work ethic seems to be a necessary prerequisite. 

This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine in March 2014 and is reproduced with their permission