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 and get going, already!