Prospective Associates, Beware the Lowered Billable Hour Allure

emotional health
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An in-depth look into the legal industry's emotional health post-COVID and how firms need to shift cultures to address the underlying issues.

As attorney wellbeing and mental health plummet, firms are dangling dazzling benefits in front of potential recruits. Hybrid work opportunities, lower billable hour targets and more vacation days are now all on the table, alongside the “more traditional” perks, like social events, fruit bowls and quarterly offsites. These benefits paint the picture of thriving and fun law firms with real balance, real community and a real emphasis on attorney welfare. But while the appetite is there, associates remain hungry for relief from burnout and anxiety.

A 21st Century Plague – And the Prognosis is Poor.

Associate mental health and wellbeing are deteriorating at an alarming rate. After a few years of showing some improvement, reports of anxiety and depression rose notably in this year’s ALM 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey. A staggering 70 percent of attorneys surveyed reported that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic.

These findings are mirrored in Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey. In this report, the attorneys surveyed noted they routinely experience disrupted sleep and anxiety. A significant number of attorneys also reported feeling burned out, in part due to their inability to disconnect from work, as well as mounting workloads.

Dazzling Perquisites Likely Nothing But a Mirage

Yet, thus far, the industry’s response to the bleak outlook for its ailing associates has been underwhelming. The legal industry is living up to its reputation as being resistant to change.

There are, of course, symbolic changes taking place. Associates are being offered more money, luxury gifts, unlimited vacation, no meeting days and extended remote work opportunities. The offers are dizzying and, at first glance, seem to offer young associates everything they’d need to find happiness. Still, most are left wanting.

Podium

The Hard Truth About Vacation Time. It’s a Lie.

The global media routinely chortles about the state of paid vacation entitlements in the United States. Why? Well, because we’re the “only advanced economy that does not mandate any paid vacation time for workers,” according to the 2019 No-Vacation Nation report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

We (as a whole) believe vacation time, even personal time, is a privilege to be earned through years of hard work. White-collar culture has reflected this attitude for years, with entry and mid-level workers bragging about pulling all-nighters while managers keep a watchful eye for any graduates leaving before them, lest they dare to prioritize their personal “life.”

This culture isn’t written into white-collar contracts. Goldman Sachs’ workers famously work 95 hour weeks, but we doubt their employment contracts outline this informal requirement. In fact, a reading of their Benefits, Wellness & Compensation collateral makes the workplace sound positively balanced, with its “competitive vacation policies” and “wellness services.”

OAS

The point here is for the vacation time promised to be realized, white-collar cultures would need to undergo a massive cultural transformation. Legal leaders would need to recognize and respect that associates who are taking time off are indeed entitled to that time, not because it has been “earned” but because it’s humane and necessary for their wellbeing and longevity.

Generally, it seems safe to assume that isn’t the reality experienced by attorneys in the United States. I recall a brief vacation I took with my husband and young son, where I spent my time off negotiating an urgent transaction while looking longingly out the window at the two of them playing in the lake. The scenery was beautiful, but it was not a relaxing or restful getaway. I did not return to the office refreshed.

Bloomberg Law’s recent Attorney Workload and Hours report echoes my experiences. While the attorneys surveyed took an average of three days off in Q1 2021, the vast majority noted that their time off was not particularly relaxing. When you assess this alongside the finding that most attorneys surveyed found it difficult to disconnect from work, the conclusion that “time off” is more commonly “offsite work” doesn’t seem too far afield.

What About the Money?

While the associate attorneys are busy burning themselves out chasing empty promises of time off with luxury watches on their wrists, we’re also seeing an exodus of women attorneys. Women are leaving because of pay disparities, lack of credit, fewer opportunities for promotion and unpredictable work demands, according to the American Bar’s 2021 Report, In Their Own Words.

It almost seems that associates, particularly female associates, know their time will be up in the near future. So, they grab the bags of money while they can before walking away.

It is devastating to watch so much talent and diversity leave an industry with so much potential. Especially when the changes required aren’t likely to harm a firm’s bottom line. Companies where women are well represented at the management level tend to earn profits and share performance close to 50 percent higher than those without. These companies are also more likely to offer (actually) flexible workplace arrangements and enjoy increased diversity.

The issue seems circular. Women are leaving the law before being promoted to leadership (or being overlooked for promotions) but, without women at the leadership level, associates are likely to continue burning out at a rate of knots.

No wonder the associates are dizzy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The overhaul required to beat burnout is mammoth. We are working toward it at our law firm, as are some others, but we’re a long way off it at the industry level.

A sound starting point for law firms would be dropping billable hour targets to correlate with the promised vacation time. If the contract placed in front of the associates doesn’t do that, they won’t be enjoying those vacation days — no matter how earnestly the promise was made. It’s that simple.

But, if the solution to not all, but many, of the legal industry’s issues was just fewer billable hours in contracts, change wouldn’t be so difficult. Unfortunately, after years (decades, even) of poor mental health and wellbeing in the legal industry, not much is changing.

Law firms need to recognize that the talent they lose today does have an impact on their bottom line into the future. They need to start tackling the perception that “personal time” is a privilege enjoyed by those not on the partner track, through both education and action:

  • Educate your leadership team about the powerful reasons females shouldn’t be overlooked for promotions or paid less – even if they’ve had children.
  • Educate all attorneys about the negative impact of burnout on productivity, motivation and quality of work.
  • Implement policies that give your attorneys actual time off. Time where they aren’t expected to be available.
  • Develop pay scales and promotion standards that reward attorneys on the basis of the quality of their work, not their gender.
  • Fulfill the promise of vacation time, flexible workplace arrangements, hybrid or remote work opportunities and lowered billable targets.

We have an opportunity now to take our first steps, as law firms grapple with their decision of whether to force employees back to the office. On one hand, remote work has the potential to offer a modicum of balance to overworked associates. On the other hand, paying clients want law firms to bring those burned-out associates back in house full time. And those paying clients carry clout, as we see with the Chief Legal Officer at Morgan Stanley’s edict demanding outside firms put an end to remote work.

Firm leaders who want a workforce that is more diverse, more inclusive, happier, and more profitable may want to think twice before giving in. The future depends on it.

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