Pity the United Kingdom, which I just visited. It has only “Work-Life Balance Week” — the last seven days of September. How many Americans realize that October was our “Work-Life Balance Month“? Such commemorations suggest an obvious question: What should we celebrate the rest of the year? Work-Life Imbalance?

The concept of work-life balance is laudable, even if the phrase itself can be somewhat off target. For those who are chronically unhappy with their jobs, “balancing” unpleasant “work” with the rest of “life” is at best palliative, not curative. Dissatisfaction with a career usually infects everything else. Notwithstanding daunting economic realities, a better long-term plan for such sufferers is to find another way to make a living.

On the other hand, my friend, Northwestern Professor Steven Lubet, correctly notes that no job is perfect: “That’s why they call it work.” But attorneys who generally enjoy their tasks still benefit from time spent on people and things other than clients and their problems. Enjoying life outside the office makes most of us better in every way and improves worker productivity. Unfortunately, that’s an increasingly tough sell in most of  the Biglaw world where the MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billable hours, billings, and short-term equity partner profits — force all oars in the water to row in the same myopic direction.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding, but when even satisfied attorneys feel pressure to work unreasonably long hours, bad things happen to them, their families, clients, firms, and the profession. Slackers can take no comfort in my views. An honest 2,000 billed hours — the annual minimum that most big firms report to NALP — requires 10-hour days and occasional weekends. ( That’s more than firms required 25 years ago, but it’s still not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, too many large firms made the 2,000 minimum culturally irrelevant long ago. No debt-ridden associate concerned about keeping a job wants to bring up the rear of a year-end billable hours list. Nor does the pressure end with advancement. Equity partners must continually justify their economic existences — year-after-year.

During my 30 years at a large firm, my billed hours usually ranged from 2,000 to 2,200 yearly. Once or twice, they reached 2,500 and every incremental hour above 2,200 took a increasingly severe toll. Beyond losing any semblance of a personal life, how well does anyone function during the 14th hour of a workday compared to hour 8? A fatigued mind is fuzzy, irrational, less efficient, and prone to error. Most clients paying for an attorney’s 3,000th billed hour in a year are getting very little for their money. Yet some lawyers do that year after year — and some clients encourage such behavior.

The Department of Transportation reviewed scientific studies on the effects of exhaustion on the human mind and body before limiting over-the-road truckers to 70 hours in an 8-day period, after which they must rest for 34 consecutive hours. ( Ask any Biglaw lawyer the last time he or she worked at that clip (or worse) and then went 34 straight hours without looking at a BlackBerry or talking with clients and colleagues on a cellphone.

Who presents the greater societal danger — a tired, overworked driver exceeding the 8-day maximum of 70 hours, or an attorney maintaining a more strenuous pace? Big-hours legal billers might argue that trucker fatigue is different. When a sleep deprived driver causes a catastrophe, innocent bystanders are at risk. If lawyer exhaustion produces suboptimal or even negative results, the client (or the attorney’s malpractice carrier) pays the price; usually it’s financial. That’s reassuring.

No one wants an attorney who has nothing to do. Likewise, every good lawyer sometimes confronts genuine emergencies that require burning the midnight oil. But a firm’s perennial billable hours winners present potential problems that, for some reason, don’t concern most clients. I’ve never understood why.


  1. Law firms’ “work hard” culture is really not much different than many other fields in respect to people being required to work inordinately or taking perverse pride in working so many hours. IMO, the villain of the piece is the billable-hour economic system, which precludes anyone from enjoying the benefits of expertise or judgment that, in other fields, translates into efficiency and higher margins

    When a programmer or engineer becomes a solution-creating wizard, if he can complete a project in half the typical time he’ll still get paid whatever the client agreed to pay for that outcome, and he’s then free to work on something else or relax for some of the time. If a lawyer becomes a solution-creating wizard and finishes a matter in half the time, he gets paid half of what the lawyer got who took the typical amount of time, so he has to keep grinding more hours to make the same money. Penalizing excellence and efficiency is insane.

    Lawyers cling to hourly billing because they perceive that it limits their risk, i.e., ignoring write-downs, they’ll safely get paid for each hour they work. Too few see that it’s a destructive virtual revenue cap, tied to the length of the day or limits of daily human concentration and function.

    Until lawyers accept the fact that their profession is also a business, calculate their cost of service delivery and dump the ridiculous hourly economy, they are structurally precluded from any work-life balance unless their firm agrees to accept lower economic production. Fat chance of that.

    This is a systemic, structural problem. “Work-life” Band-Aids won’t help it at all.

  2. Three big factors that tend to get left out of the calculus are the number of working days available in the year, variability in availability of billable inventory, and billability (no. of hrs billed as a % of no. of hrs actually worked). Assuming a six day work-week, just two weeks off (with no other holidays, sick days, days off for CLE etc.), even slight inventory fluctuation (e.g., settlements and other early dispositions, work not originating quickly enough or being distributed evenly within a firm), and a billability rate of 80%, 2000 is a hard target to come by honestly. 2,200 is almost impossible.

    A 2,000 hour requirement means at least 8.33 hours worked six days a week for 50 weeks with a constant source of billable work. A 2,200 hour requirement means at least 9.16 hours worked six days a week for 50 weeks with a constant source of billable work. Given inventory fluctuations and all the developments that have taken hours out of the associate billable mix (e.g., electronic legal research instead of running the stacks in the library, outsourced document review and other litigation support, greater capacity to repurpose work product through knowledge management systems, greater transparency in bills and more rigorous billing guidelines and bill review through e-billing systems and auditing), this is becoming more and more of a stretch.

    • I agree. As a litigator who actually tried many cases, I found it easier to reach 2,000 hours than, say, tax lawyers who never left the office. When I was out of town, there was little to do besides work — sometimes late into the evenings.

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