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Lawyer Working Hours: A Difficult Path Toward Work-Life Balance

Learn how to optimize your working hours for maximum productivity and work-life balance.

11 min
read
Mar 21, 2023

Lawyers working hours have been a topic of debate for many years. It's generally accepted that in order to succeed, a lawyer's hours working per week should be at least 50. However, this view is increasingly being challenged.

A number of studies have shown that working long hours does not necessarily lead to greater productivity. In fact, it can often have the opposite effect. Working long hours can lead to burnout, which can have a negative impact on both productivity and quality of work.

So, what does this mean for law firm owners? Should they continue to encourage their lawyers to work long hours, or should they rethink their approach? This blog post explores the issue and provides some food for thought. Here's what you'll learn from this article:

  • How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work?
  • Working Hours of a Lawyer: Law School Clerks and Associates
  • Working Hours of a Lawyer: Partners and Shareholders
  • Long Working Hours and Health
  • Attorney Regular Working Hours Strategies: A Dream Come True

How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work?

Lawyers are known for their long work hours, but how many hours a week do lawyers really work? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average work hours for a lawyer are around 40 hours per week, including time spent in the office, attending meetings, and preparing for cases.

Their hourly wages vary widely depending on their practice area and the state they practice in, with intellectual property lawyers making $351 an hour and tax lawyers making $320 an hour.

How many hours do lawyers work

The state in which they practice also has a significant influence on the hourly wages of persons involved in the legal profession. For example, lawyers in private practice in New York tend to have higher hourly wages than those in California or Florida.

For aspiring lawyers, it is important to keep these figures in mind when deciding what type of law to pursue and where to practice.

— Do Wage and Hour Laws Apply to Hours Lawyers Work?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the minimum billable hour requirements and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act do not apply to professionals like lawyers.

Employers do not need to pay extra for overtime hours to workers whose job is primarily intellectual and requires the exercise of discretion and judgment. Unfortunately for lawyers, this describes their jobs perfectly.

— Lawyers’ Working Hours: Big Law

The typical minimum billable hours for attorneys per year are around 2,200 hours — that's at least 42.3 billable hours every week. However, these are typical working hours for lawyers. Moreover, they are achievable thanks to the work of legal assistants and paralegals who support lawyers in various administrative duties such as preparing bills and handling staff issues.

While this extra personnel comes with higher overhead costs, the lawyers are able to dedicate nearly all their time to working on client matters - all without having to worry about other non-essential tasks.

Unfortunately, even after all that hard work, there's no guarantee that those billable hours will be credited to the client's invoice due to partner or shareholder preferences, which might result in an original 30-hour workload getting slashed down to 10 instead. Billable hours do not include many tasks lawyers perform, including:

  • Firm meetings. Many big firms have weekly meetings to discuss firm matters. Lawyers cannot bill these firm meetings.
  • Commuting. If you are working on a client's case while riding the train to work, you might bill them for the time. If you spend your morning drive thinking about a client's case - you might not be able to bill your time.
  • Meal breaks. You might bill a working lunch while you review documents for a discovery production. But you might not bill lunch with a colleague discussing trial strategy.
  • Client marketing and development. Lunches and dinners for clients, professional networking events, and board meetings do not count toward billing requirements, but you still need to make up for hours spent on law firm digital marketing.

— Lawyers' Working Hours: Small Law Firms and Solo Practices

Lawyers at small firms and solo practices have a different problem. They might operate more efficiently and have lower billing requirements. But lawyers at these firms might have more administrative responsibilities.

Small law firms and solo practices

While every small law firm has different requirements for its lawyers, a lawyer in a small firm might spend time on non-billable administrative tasks like:

  • Time tracking
  • Reviewing bills
  • Planning firm events
  • Training staff

Small firm lawyers might also feel greater pressure to meet their billing requirements. If you are one of a handful of lawyers in the firm, falling short might have a huge financial impact on the firm and may even lead to your dismissal.

— In-House Attorneys

In-house lawyers are employees who usually only work 40 hours per week unless the company is pushing to meet deadlines. Normally, they may work from nine to five like the rest of the company's employees. They also do not feel the pressure of meeting a billing requirement, as they only have a single client that pays a salary rather than a legal fee.

— Public Defenders and Prosecutors

public defenders and prosecutors

Public defenders and prosecutors provide legal services for federal, state, county, or city governments and have unique circumstances that can affect the number of hours they work. High-profile cases can require extra hours, and prosecutors and public defenders are paid with the expectation that their lawyer hours per week will be as little as 40 hours.

— Civil Legal Aid Attorney

Legal aid attorneys work for non-profit organizations and usually accept a smaller fee in exchange for a steady stream of indigent clients. Family lawyers in legal aid organizations can file protective orders, oppose evictions, and help clients with collections agencies. They usually work the number of hours agreed to unless a case demands more.

— Federal Government Agency Attorney

Regulatory lawyers work a regular number of hours but rarely need to work more than 40 hours a week. At the federal level, they are paid based on their seniority and position, meaning they only need to work enough hours to finish their cases and meet their deadlines.


Working Hours of a Lawyer: Law School Clerks and Associates

working hours of a lawyer

The average work hours of a lawyer will depend on your position in your organization. But you should not assume that anyone has an easy lawyer work schedule. Everyone — from law school clerks to managing partners — works hard. They just spend time on different tasks.

— Law School Clerks

Law clerks usually spend a lot of time performing legal research and working on their legal writing skills. Until they get their law degree and pass the bar exam, these law students cannot handle client matters without supervision. Most law school clerks have a typical lawyer work schedule, which is around 40 hours per week.

— Law Firm Associates

Law firm associates are the workhorses of a firm. When answering "do lawyers work long hours?" the answer is usually yes for associates. Associates have billing requirements imposed by their law firms. If they fail to meet those requirements, they may face financial consequences, such as losing their bonuses. They may even get terminated.

Associates work as employees of the firm. This means they usually do not share in the fruits of their labor. They may earn a bonus by meeting or exceeding their billing requirements. But they are not entitled to a share of the firm's profits.

Associates are often motivated to work as many hours as possible so the firm will offer them a position as a partner or shareholder. These positions have additional responsibilities, but partners and shareholders usually have associates to help them.


Working Hours of a Lawyer: Partners and Shareholders

Partners and shareholders are the owners of a firm. The difference between partners and shareholders arises from the legal structure of the firm. If the firm is structured as a general partnership or limited partnership, owners are called partners. If the firm is structured as a professional corporation, the owners are shareholders.

Law firm owners work many hours. But their time is spent differently than associates. Partners and shareholders are experienced lawyers who have clients of their own. These lawyers focus on those clients and pass on other work to associates.

As a result, these lawyers often spend as much time supervising associates and law students under them as they spend on practicing law. They must deal with any emergencies that arise in clients' cases.

If you want to know "do lawyers work on holidays?" or "do lawyers work on weekends?" the answer is that partners will work any time clients need them.

Law firm owners also help run the firm. They have responsibilities like:

  • Hiring and firing
  • Coordinating with outside professionals
  • Arranging health insurance and other benefits for staff
  • Directing marketing for the firm

A partner or shareholder handles these tasks on top of their legal practice. As a result, the lawyer's work hours for partners and shareholders often exceed 40 hours a week.


Long Working Hours and Health

Long hours can adversely affect your health. Long lawyers' hours of work can deprive lawyers of rest, exercise, and a healthy diet. And lawyers have stressful jobs.

long working hours and health

Stress causes your body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause your body to:

  • Increase your blood pressure and heart rate
  • Narrow your blood vessels
  • Release stomach acid to get rid of any food in your stomach
  • Dump sugar into your bloodstream
Continuous stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stomach ulcers, and many other health problems. Stress can also take a toll on your mental health. It can lead to emotional outbursts, anxiety, and depression.

These mental health symptoms can, in turn, cause substance abuse. One study found that nearly 85% of lawyers report drinking alcohol, and 21% report that they suffer from alcoholism. Also, over 15% of lawyers reported using sedatives, 10% reported marijuana use, 5.6% used opiates, and 4.8% reported using stimulants.


Attorney Regular Working Hours Strategies: A Dream Come True

Lawyers can control whether they work too many hours. Finding a work-life balance may require some tradeoffs. For example, working fewer hours might result in lower pay. But some things, like health and happiness, are more valuable than money.

(c) 2022 Grow Law Firm. No use without permission

If you feel like your work-life balance has tipped too far toward work, you can adjust your law practice in a few ways:

  • A schedule is everything. Organization is essential for practicing law. It includes keeping a calendar to track deadlines and appointments, delegating work to associates and paralegals, and setting boundaries to maintain a work-life balance. You must be prepared to tell clients, shareholders, partners, and co-workers "no" and take fewer cases rather than doing less on the cases you have.
  • If you can make it easier, make it easier. Technology and staff can help make your job easier and more efficient, such as cloud-based applications, time-tracking software, scheduling and calendar software, and video conferencing services. Work out a routine to allocate work across the team and ensure everyone knows their roles, reducing time spent asking if things got done and scrambling to complete unfinished tasks.
  • Put your family relationships first. Set aside time to spend with your family and find someone to cover your cases during family vacations. This will help you have a more relaxing vacation and provide more immediate attention to your clients.
  • Don't lose yourself. Maintaining a good work-life balance means understanding the other elements in your life and weighing them against your career. Take care of yourself and set aside time to do the things you enjoy. Your clients won't miss you if you set aside an hour for a workout at the gym.
  • It's okay to ask for help. Asking for help is hard, but lawyers have many sources of assistance if they choose to use them. Providing legal services is inherently stressful, and most lawyers work a lot of hours, but they are entitled to a fair work-life balance. If they manage their daily tasks wisely, they will have the time to handle emergencies and return to their desired work level.
  • It's okay to be human. Accepting that you cannot do everything and that you have your own needs and desires can help you maintain control of your life before your work takes over. Letting clients go is not a sign of weakness, and telling partners and shareholders you cannot work during a family vacation is not insubordination. Avoid overloading yourself by delegating work. Sometimes, you will need to choose between going to a bar association luncheon or grabbing a sandwich.

Finding Balance: The Key to a Successful Legal Career and Fulfilling Personal Life

Working long hours is a common problem for lawyers, and it can be challenging to achieve a work-life balance. Many attorneys are trying to find ways to reduce their lawyers' work hours, but this can be difficult as they face pressure from clients and other stakeholders.

It is crucial for lawyers to recognize the importance of taking time off and finding ways to manage their workload so that they can maintain a healthy work-life balance. By doing so, they will be able to serve their customers better as well as become much happier in their personal lives.

Check out our website for tips from a professional law firm digital marketing agency to get a reliable stream of clients so you can restore your work-life balance.

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