Working with constant interruption and too little sleep has an impact on the body similar to alcohol and substance addiction. It also results in bad work product and workplaces. Partners must step up to lead change.
In my last post, Working Under the Influence, I described how the typical ways of working in law firms are problematic and may even be dangerous. Specifically, working with constant interruption and too little sleep has an impact on the body similar to alcohol and substance addiction. The impact on work product also is bad unless the lawyer involved expends more of their depleted resources to catch and fix errors that result from exhaustion or distraction.
Don’t Wait for Clients to Change Your Firm
Clearly, we need change. But law firms rarely change in response to grassroots revolutions. Generally, they change in response to client demands, market pressure, or partner activism. While clients are justified in being concerned about the quality of the work product (and the integrity of the bills) they receive, it’s not clear to me that clients have the wherewithal to closely examine working practices within their law firms and demand specific changes. That said, the alert in-house counsel might notice a regular pattern of late-night or weekend communications from their lawyers. They might also notice lawyer distraction during calls. These are warning signs of lawyers who are operating beyond the bounds of health and professional safety.
Don’t Wait for the Market to Change Your Firm
As for market pressure, this often does not come into play until several firms move in the right direction. The first move often is related to recruiting and retaining top talent. Then it becomes an imperative across the industry. This means that sought-after laterals should ask about the health and safety guardrails in their prospective firms. And law schools should be teaching their students about the need to find healthy firms within which to work. If every firm is offering comparable compensation and few firms offer viable paths to partnership, then young lawyers need to make sure that the handful of years they spend at a firm do not deplete them so badly that they derail their careers, exhaust their bodies, or lose their zest for life.
Partners Must Step Up
So that leaves partner activism. This doesn’t mean revolution, but it does mean that partners step up and exercise their influence to create healthier working conditions within their firm. Specifically, this means exercising restraint in assigning work and setting standards. To be crystal clear: this absolutely is NOT about lowering standards. But it is about setting and maintaining standards that are healthy rather than excessive.
Perhaps some examples will illustrate this better:
- Partner A believes that the secret to client service is extraordinary responsiveness to client needs. In theory, this is good. But what if this standard means frequent interruptions that reduce focus and slow work?
- Rather than setting the expectation that lawyers respond to calls and emails within two hours, could a triage system be agreed in advance with the client whereby the client knows how to reach a lawyer for immediate response in a true emergency but for all other communications, that client will accept a response within 24 hours?
- Partner B loves to keep a tidy desk. This means moving things along by the end of the day and, especially, at the end of the official work week so that they can have a clear weekend. This also means that the associates on their team can expect a dump of work late afternoon that inevitably eats into the evening and weekend time they need to recharge before the next official workday.
- Could this partner exercise their influence to manage associate workloads and schedules in a more humane way — even if it means setting longer timelines to complete work?
- Partner C believes they know what their clients need better than the clients themselves. So partner C will insist on doing extra work even when the client assures them that less work would be appropriate in this situation. Regardless, Partner C asks their team to prepare several alternatives even though the client has an expressed preference for one. Or Partner C asks their team to work ahead before the client has chosen the path that makes most business sense. While the extra time spent ultimately gets written off, who restores the depleted energy of exhausted associates?
- Could Partner C act more responsibly and less fearfully by learning to discern the most efficient way to meet client needs and protect client interests? This may mean spending more time with the client (possibly off the billable clock?) to understand their situation better. But that is time well-spent for the relationship and the ultimate work product.
In each of these cases, the partner in charge had the opportunity to exercise their influence to create a better work situation for the lawyers in their care and thereby reduce professional risks, yet they did not do so. Just to be clear, these are neither fictional nor rare situations. I was present and experienced each of them!
Who Pays for Overwork?
While the financial benefits of overwork flow to the partners, who pays the true costs suffered by the associates? Clearly, the associates themselves. And, when things go spectacularly wrong, the clients pay as well.
Isn’t it time partners exercised their influence for good?
- Rich Fernandez (HBR): Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout
- Rebecca Knight (HBR): How to Help Your Team With Burnout When You’re Burned Out Yourself
- Elevate Corporate Training: 15 Ways Great Leaders Manage Team Stress
- Embroker: Preventing Lawyer Burnout: How to Create a Healthy Workplace Culture
- Paula Davis: How law firm leaders can prevent employee burnout
- Lindsay Pollack: How to Manage Millennial Lawyers? Hint: Become a Better Manager, Period.
- Smokeball: How to Reduce Lawyer Burnout at Your Firm
[Photo Credit: Brett Jordan]