Return on Investment: The Lawyer Life Edition

Here’s an MBA kind of question for you, my lawyer friends: How are you investing your time? I’m not necessarily asking how you spend your time, but rather, what percentage of your time is invested in things that actually will matter to you in 5, 10, 15 years?

clock face

What's your return on time spent on the job? Image courtesy and Osama Khan.

Usually we don’t think of the hours and minutes of our work life as an investment, but that’s exactly what they are.
As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen puts it:

a company’s strategy is determined by the types of initiatives that management invests in. If a company’s resource allocation process is not managed masterfully, what emerges from it can be very different from what management intended. Because companies’ decision-making systems are designed to steer investments to initiatives that offer the most tangible and immediate returns, companies shortchange investments in initiatives that are crucial to their long-term strategies.

And, he goes on to point out in the remainder of his insightful article, the same principle is true with our own careers and lives. “People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”

What’s your return on investment for working gobs of hours?

Let’s break it down a bit and start with how you spend your time. If you’re a typical BigLaw or even not-so-BigLaw lawyer, and you’re working a 70-hour workweek and sleeping, oh let’s be generous and say 7 hours a night, and you actually shower and eat regularly (yeah, shaky assumptions—but let’s give that 15 hours per week), and spend some time commuting (another 8ish hours/week), that leaves you with maybe 26 hours a week at most that aren’t taken up by work, commuting or biological necessities.

In that 26 hours, you have to fit buying groceries, doing laundry and household chores, shopping for other stuff you need like clothes for work and gadgets to improve your efficiency and maybe even have some fun with, spending time with important people in your life (family/S.O., friends, pets), exercising, consuming entertainment generally (TV/movies/music/theatre), possibly spirituality, and maybe even—gasp—spending a little time on a hobby. Sure, you can hire some of this stuff out, but you still have to spend time, though less, on managing that outsourcing.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these 26 hours are when you’re at your freshest and brightest, right? In fact, it tends to be the opposite; many of these hours come in little chunks at the end of a workday, when your ability to use them for rewarding activities is at an ebb.

Yet even with so little unclaimed, high-quality time available, lawyers tend to look for “extra” time in that 26 hours, or, far too often, by cutting back on their sleep. Cutting back on sleep usually makes you irritable, less focused and more prone to mistakes on the job, but that doesn’t seem to stop folks from cutting that corner. But consider, where’s the biggest chunk of your time going? Not to sleep or miscellaneous activities.

If you’re looking to cut or revamp a budget, it makes sense to look first at the area where most of the budget actually is going. So for lawyers, the question is, does budgeting my time this way give me the right kind of long-term payoffs? In part 2, we’ll discuss how to assess your current time budget.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys and other professionals on aligning their values with their work. You can reach her at jalvey AT

2 thoughts on “Return on Investment: The Lawyer Life Edition

  1. Pingback: Return on Investment #2: Does Your Work Have the Right Payoff? « Leaving the Law

  2. Pingback: Return on Investment pt. 3: Solving the Time Budgeting Mess of Lawyer Life « Leaving the Law

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