80-Hour Weeks, Key to Lost Productivity and Living for Lawyers

So last time, I talked about how overwork leads to lower productivity levels at work. How, in fact, overwork and lack of sleep can lead you to behave, cognitively, as if you had a .10 blood alcohol level. All without drinking a drop, woot!

rope with one hanging thread about to snap
If you feel like this is your life and you're working 60-, 70- and 80-hour weeks constantly, there's good news: Your grip on reality is still intact. If not much else.

Yeah, lawyers, we’re always putting all our effort into dysfunctional behaviors and then burning out. It’s no wonder so many lawyers are seeking a different, alternative career or career path. At least that is a rational response.

Three 80-hour Weeks and You’re Toast

Need more proof? Well, that bastion of business thought, the Business Roundtable, has some eye-popping evidence that lawyers’ workload is purely insane. As Sara Robinson in Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week puts it:

“The Business Roundtable study found that after just eight 60-hour weeks, the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70- or 80-hour weeks, the fall-off happens even faster: at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks.”

Three weeks, people. When’s the last year you pulled “only” 3 of those nasty 80-hour weeks?

So we have an entire profession that is showing up drunk to work and not performing anywhere near their potential as a result. If the intoxicating substance were alcohol or drugs instead of billable hours, lawyers would be advising clients to either fire the intoxicated employee or send them to rehab. Instead, lawyers crack the whip on themselves and bill more, more, more. It’s nuts.

Because we’re talking about a very talented, smart, motivated bunch of people, lawyers can and do still pull off decent work—but it’s not anything close to what they could do if they had enough sleep and a life outside of work. Because they’re cognitively impaired, lawyers don’t see that lower quality of work, they just see billable hours mounting and think it’s all good. Clients should be shrieking about that, and actually, they do shriek about the number of hours to do simple tasks.

But clients’ judgement is impaired, too. They’ve bought into the same notion that we’re robots and all extra hours past 40 are the same quality as hours 1 — 8. The research shows that simply isn’t true, no matter how managers want to believe otherwise. (This is, by the way, the definition of dysfunction: being confronted with unassailable facts and ignoring them because they don’t fit your preferred behavior defaults.)

Yes, you can get more work done if you work longer, but it’s not a 1:1 ratio. The studies show that working 50% more hours, you get about 25% more productivity. For a very little while, anyway.

Working for a short period, such as a week or two, for 60 — 70 hours a week, can produce more output. But according to the Business Roundtable study, after that short period, workers need about a week of downtime before they can return to their 40-hour per week productivity level. Of course, when you’re on the billable hours treadmill, that doesn’t happen without severe unhappiness by the beancounters.

Dying for Hours

I’ll touch briefly on the health consequences of the way-past-40-hour workweek. To be blunt, those who do it are killing themselves. Sometimes not even that slowly. A huge swath of the stress-induced illnesses that plague lawyers, like:

  • anxiety & depression,
  • heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure,
  • back problems,
  • digestive problems,
  • Type 2 diabetes,
  • obesity, and
  • some cancers

can be reduced or eliminated by getting rid of chronic stress. Yes, lack of sleep and little to no downtime from work fall under the category of chronic stress.

Why Are You Here, Anyway?

And then there’s the relationship cost: You know, all that lack of connection with important other people, like boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, kids, other family, and friends. Because if you’re working all the time, you don’t have time for lunch, coffee, a 45-minute phone call, going to the dance class or soccer, or any of those zillion other things that shape time together and build relationships.

Then there’s the pesky fact that if you’re overworked and burned out, time with you is likely to, well, suck. Or at least not be you at your best or anything close to it. Yeah, just what you want the spouse and kids to have, right?

All those opportunities are lost in the maw of Billable Hours. Yet, as Brene Brown poignantly points out in her 2010 TED talk, connection is why we are here on earth. It is what gives our life meaning. If all you are connecting with are assholes so you can have a comfortable bank account, what meaning does your life have? I’m asking a bit rhetorically, but it’s a deep question you really need to confront.

Lawyers, especially BigLaw lawyers, face a stark choice: Do you want to work at far less than your potential (because you’re overworked, sleep-deprived and essentially drunk on the job), seriously endanger your health, and have no relationships to make your life have meaning? Then please, keep doing what you’re doing.

Or, decide to make a change.

Hint: Saying that law firms won’t change is a choice to stay stuck.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on being more productive, and on leading more balanced, fulfilling lives. If that sounds like something you need, try a discounted sample coaching session. Email Jennifer today at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours.


  1. “You know, all that lack of connection with important other people, like boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, kids, other family, and friends. Because if you’re working all the time, you don’t have time for lunch, coffee, a 45-minute phone call, going to the dance class or soccer, or any of those zillion other things that shape time together and build relationships.”

    I never figured out how to “build relationships” once I was out of high school.

    At least working in a law firm gives you some sort of forced social structure.

    So there you go.

    I’m incapable of forming relationships outside of highly structured hierarchical formal institutions.


    I’ve begun my voyage of self-discovery.

  2. I just wanted to say thank you for your blog. I’m a lawyer but not in the States- doesn’t matter though because what you write fits perfectly with my experiences in big and small firms. It’s a miserable, stressful and soul destroying way to waste your life. And those at the top who are coining it couldn’t care less if you burn out. Your blog is a lifeline though, something to turn to when the firm is telling you to up those hours and bills and ‘if you just organised yourself better, you’d be able to do so’. Never mind that you already work long hours and weekends. You’re meant to buy into this because it keeps you there. So thank you for giving us somewhere to turn when we start believing it! The next step is to get out!

    • I’m glad the blog is helpful, Never. Welcome to the madness!

      I do think one thing every lawyer can do is read the research and show it to friendly partners/managers (with a bulleted summary cover email, of course). It’s one of those things where people have to hear new information several times before they’ll even start to consider it, since it flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

  3. I am having the opposite problem – not enough hours. This is causing a ton of stress since I am concerned about my future with my firm. I have spoken up repeatedly but it continues to be an issue. The legal business is so out of whack.

What's your take?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.