Overworked Lawyers: Delicate, Drunk Flowers

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You know that mythical time in law practice, when billable hour goals were 1600 and you were expected to be part of the community? Turns out that such expectations reflected a much larger business norm, actually a deep belief, that working more than 40 hours a week led to decreased productivity over the long term. And this belief was borne out by data collected by businesses, not labor unions. Astounding, isn’t it?

Lawyer at desk with wine bottle
Leaving the lilac shirt aside, showing up at the office like this would likely get you escorted to rehab. Yet even minor sleep losses have the same effect, you drunk lawyer you.

I found all this and more out in a marvelous article on Salon, Bring Back the 40-hour Work Week, by Sara Robinson. I always thought that the 40-hour work week was forced on business by labor unions. Not entirely. Labor unions certainly agitated for it, but businesses actually supported a 40-hour week as well by the time the Fair Labor Standards Act passed.

In 1914, Henry Ford led the way, by doubling his workers’ wages and cutting them from a 47-hour week to a 40-hour week. It totally pissed off his competition that Ford’s productivity then leapfrogged over their car factories’ productivity. But they wised up and followed suit.

So what do the productivity limits of an 8-hour factory worker day have to do with lawyers? After all, it’s not like you’re on your feet all day or swinging a hammer, right?

Brain Workers Are Delicate Flowers

Here’s your jaw-dropping factoid of the day: For knowledge workers, 6 hours of work is your productivity limit. After that, your brain has checked out, regardless of whether your fingers keep moving on the keyboard or you are on hour 3 of the migraine-inducing conference call at 7 p.m. Your butt is present, but your brain has gone to Tahiti. Or wherever else your body wants to be.

You know instinctively this is true. Your focus fades if you’ve been at it for a while, and breaks don’t necessarily restore the mental zip. For me, it was around 3 p.m. Sure, I’d go get a cuppa and come back and put in 3 or 4 more hours, but at most I had about 1 good hour left. The rest was often surfing time, whinging time, or (very rarely) straightening up my office. Maybe I actually “worked,” but it was a lot of time simply staring at the screen praying for some words to enter my fingers, or re-reading the same research because it wasn’t really sinking in. Maybe I’d go to the library and look up some cases. (Remember, I did practice in the Jurassic Period.)

I don’t mean to be totally glib, because this fact of 6 good hours of brain work has some fairly serious implications for lawyers and their worship at the maw of the Billable Hours God. As I’ve said before, lawyers act like they are factory workers selling billable hour widgets, but really, their value is in the brilliance and quality of their work, not the amount of hours spent with nose to grindstone. With routine 10-hour days and 65-hour work weeks at BigLaw and elsewhere, lawyers overall are exhausted and doing a crap job for their clients.

Blaming the Victim

Of course, no managing partner who wants to keep her or his job will agree that their team is doing subpar work because they’re working too many hours. They can’t even see how that’s true. Firms delight in blaming the individual lawyers working those crazy, brain-sapping hours as “not measuring up,” or “not loyal,” or “not tough enough” if they make mistakes and plead fatigue. If you’re not billing at least 8, preferably 10 hours a day, you’re not working hard enough. And we all know that working that kind of schedule means we miss out on enough sleep. (Remember, if you’re not waking up without an alarm clock daily, you’re not getting enough sleep.)

The U.S. military would tell law firms that they’re full of it. Tired people make more mistakes, effort level be damned. Believe what you like, but the facts are pretty clear. As Robinson points out in her article,

The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. Research sponsored by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up.

So yep, most of you are showing up at work functionally drunk. Mazel tov!

This quality of output test is a hard test for lawyers to conduct, because from the word go, lawyers are expected to—and do—work ridiculous, brain-sucking hours. But it might be interesting to compare the quality of work of part-time lawyers to full-time lawyers. So long as the comparison wasn’t done by someone with an agenda, of course.

Even if you’re not missing out on sleep, working extended hours for an extended period of time has some fairly serious consequences. I’ll talk about those next time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on how to get enough sleep and get some work-life balance, or maybe even a new career. Contact her today to schedule your discounted career coaching sample session. Email Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com and get going, already!


  1. Law firms don’t care. During my prolonged illness I came to the realization that if I’d died, my boss would’ve only been upset that he’d have to find and train someone else to do my work. It would only represent an inconvenience to him. Toxic.

  2. And with respect to your 6 hour productivity rule – note that really shouldn’t translate to 6 hours of billable time for most lawyers – so maybe a 4 to 4.5 billable hour day is realistically a good day. Most law firms that I’ve worked for would be counseling any association that was putting up such poor numbers, but as my own boss, I’ve found that, most days, that’s a happy number to get to, on average.

    1. EJ is really correct.

      One old litigation partner I knew once told me he shot for 3 billable hours a day. He didn’t last in the profession, however. 6 is a realistic number in my view, but that’s for a 8 to 9 hour day. If somebody claims to be billing more than that everyday, they may very well be billing just for being there.

      Solos often have a more realistic view. One old solo I know told me that he had a lot of days where he felt lucky if he billed three hours.

  3. Law firms will care the second their clients care. And yes, EJ, I think you’ve hit on a good solution–be your own boss. It’s kind of scary when you’re not in the loony bin of toxic behaviors any longer–what with all those people thinking they’re normal when they’re anything but–yet then, you get exhilarated.

  4. Someday, a really brilliant GC is going to insist that (a) law firms track whether the client is receiving the first or the fourteenth hour billed in a day and (b) insist on a discount for hours after the seventh or eighth. I used to think that the billable hour was something we could get around, but so long as firms are owned by lawyers (who are generally bad project managers), it’s about the only way to allocate risk. So the solution would seem to be to stop treating every hour equally, and price in a discount for “exhaustion.” Sure, the first GC to do it will have to hire a younger, more hungry firm willing to work on “alternative” payment schemes. But the lower cost and higher quality should quickly make it pay off.

    1. Fascinating! I’ve never hear anyone discuss different payments for different hours. Did you come up with that or are you reiterating something you read somewhere else? (If you don’t want to have a full blown discussion on here you can email me: Thinkdaily555 @ yahoo.com.)

      1. Many years ago the defense of litigation was just done on a quote. That is, the lawyers bid a set amount for the case, and got that much no matter how much work went into it. Of course, modern discovery rules make that impractical.

    2. This would have to be done as a law firm policy. Otherwise partners would just mandate you work your morning hours on that client and leave the crap hours for another client. It would just create a bigger scheduling nightmare for associates. At my biglaw firm, we have arrangements with clients where clients won’t pay for more than X hours per day from any given associate. All that does is just create a headache for associates on those really busy days trying to meet all the client’s demands while trying to budget your time so you don’t have to have a lecture from the partner.

      Even if the practice was systemically enforced from the general pool of GC’s, I’m sure there would be enough “nice” clients out there who would strike up non-discriminating deals with their law firm buddies that these “nice” client billables would fill up any unproductive hours.

      I’m also pretty sure associates wouldn’t care enough how they clocked the time to really put any effort in differentiating between unproductive/productive hours. Isn’t it enough that we have to bill on 6 minute intervals? Now we have to figure out what hour we worked on something? Did I respond to that e-mail in my 4th or 5th hour of work?

      I would do this extra administrative work if it meant I could have a 3-hour billable day though.

  5. Six hours? Wow! That explains a LOT! I always thought my 3pm or 4pm crash was due to not eating the right thing at lunch :-/ But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Even now that I’m not a lawyer anymore (switched to being a real estate agent, been at it for one year and LOVE it), I can see it. Despite my best intentions, there’s only so much “brain work” I can log each day. After that, my brain is mush.

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