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

updated
August 19, 2022
15 min
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Management

Most lawyers work long hours. Some do this simply to meet the minimum billable hour requirements set by their law firm. Other lawyers enjoy the work they do and the pay they receive to do it.

But many lawyers work long hours because they provide important legal representation to their clients. Fulfilling their obligations to clients keeps the legal system working correctly, improves the standing of the legal profession, and gives lawyers a sense of fulfillment and importance.

But working long hours can take a toll on a lawyer. The lawyer's physical and mental health, relationships, and lawyer job satisfaction can suffer as the hours worked increase.

Read on to learn more about the typical working hours of a lawyer for various types of legal practices. You will also learn some steps lawyers can take to balance their work lives with their personal lives.

How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work?

How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work

There is no easy way to count how many hours per day or week lawyers work. Many factors influence a lawyer's working hours.

The type of practice can affect a lawyer's schedule. Some practice areas, like criminal defense, may require a lawyer to remain available around the clock. Transactional lawyers, like tax lawyers or intellectual property lawyers, have more control over their schedules since after-hours and weekend emergencies rarely happen.

A lawyer's schedule will also change depending on the work project. On the eve of trial, a client's lawyers may work around the clock. But normally, the same client might only require 20 or 30 hours of work a month.

As a baseline, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a majority of lawyers work full-time, and many work outside of regular working hours. A law firm that requires more than 2,100 billable hours per year expects you to bill at least 40 hours per week. If you do anything besides billable work at the office, you will spend more than 40 hours there weekly.

Do Wage and Hour Laws Apply to Lawyers?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the minimum wage 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.

Big Law: Lawyers at Large Firms

Big Law Lawyers at Large Firms

Lawyers at big law firms work a lot. Many large firms have 2,200 or more minimum billable hours per year. This translates to at least 42.3 billable hours per week.

Many large law firms can achieve this requirement because the firm has legal assistants and paralegals to handle administrative functions like preparing client bills and resolving staff issues.

But this also means large firms often have a lot of overhead expenses, including the salaries of all the staff members who support the clients. These firms realize that since lawyers have enough support to avoid administrative tasks, they can spend all of their time working.

Even with administrative support, the time you record might not end up getting credited as billable hours. A shareholder or partner might discount a client's bill to reflect a client agreement or to maintain client goodwill. As a result, the 30 hours you worked might get cut to 10 hours. You need to work an additional 20 hours on other tasks to make up the difference.

Additionally, even if you can avoid administrative responsibilities, you may still work additional hours to hit your billing requirement. 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

You may or may not be able to bill your commute. 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 bill your time.

Meal Breaks

Like commutes, you may or may not bill meals. 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

Lawyers spend a lot of time building social connections with colleagues, clients, and potential clients. Client lunches and dinners, professional networking events, and board meetings for legal organizations do not count toward your billing requirement.

Although the social connections you make might turn into future work, you still need to make up the hours spent on law firm digital marketing.

Small Law Firms and Solo Practices

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.

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. The company usually only expects them to work 40 hours per week unless the company is pushing to meet deadlines.

For example, if a company is preparing an initial public offering, the company's legal department may work around the clock to resolve regulatory legal issues. But during normal times, the lawyer might work from nine to five like the rest of the company's employees.

In-house lawyers also do not feel the pressure of meeting a billing requirement. They only have a single client that pays a salary rather than a legal fee. As a result, in-house lawyers can usually keep regular working hours as long as they finish all their work.

Public Defenders and Prosecutors

public defenders and prosecutors

Public defenders and prosecutors usually work for the federal, state, county, or city governments. These lawyers have a few unique circumstances that can affect the number of hours they work.

On the one hand, prosecutors and public defenders handling high-profile cases might need to work extra hours making sure the case gets handled with the care it deserves. And these offices might not have the budget to bring in extra help for these cases.

On the other hand, prosecutors and public defenders get paid a salary with the expectation that they will only work 40 hours per week. And these lawyers usually take a lower salary than they would take if they had a private practice.

As a result, governments try to avoid overburdening them by maintaining enough staff to handle all of their cases without working too many additional hours a week.

Civil Legal Aid Attorney

Legal aid attorneys work usually work for non-profit organizations. They usually accept a smaller fee in exchange for a steady stream of indigent clients.

The legal matters handled by legal aid attorneys usually do not take much time. Family lawyers in a legal aid organization might file domestic violence protective orders for victims. Lawyers for a legal aid group might also oppose evictions or help clients deal with collections agencies.

For the most part, legal aid lawyers will work the number of hours they agreed to work unless a case demands more hours.

Federal Government Agency Attorney

Regulatory lawyers work a regular number of hours. They rarely need to work more than 40 hours a week. At the federal level, lawyers get paid a salary based on their years of seniority and their position.

They get this salary regardless of the number of hours they work. As a result, 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 working 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 work a regular 40-hour 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 working hours for partners and shareholders often exceeds 40 hours a week.

Long Working Hours and Health

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.

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.

An Overworked Lawyer First-Aid Kit

An Overworked Lawyer First-Aid Kit

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.

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

Timetable Is Everything

Being organized can relieve many of the stresses of practicing law. Organization can include things like keeping a calendar to keep track of your deadlines and appointments without overloading your day.

Being organized also means managing your docket efficiently. Your legal assistants can help you create a fair work-life balance by tracking your deadlines and giving you as much notice as possible. This will allow you to complete your work without disrupting your personal schedule.

You can also delegate work to associates and paralegals. Many lawyers worry about losing control over their cases by delegating responsibility. But teaching associates and paralegals how to handle the time-intensive work allows you to focus on the larger legal strategy. And you will still have control over the work as you supervise others.

You will also need to set boundaries to maintain your desired work-life balance. You can set what time you will arrive at the office and what time you will leave. You can decide which days to work and which days are for you and your family.

But the difficulty will come when you need to enforce those boundaries. You will need to be prepared to tell clients, shareholders, partners, and co-workers "no." You just need to keep a few things in mind.

First, for lifestyle law firms, the firm's owners may give you the discretion to turn down or push off work. But some firms will frown if you try to set boundaries in your work life. A firm could withhold bonuses or promotions if you turn down or delay work. A firm could even terminate you.

Second, you still have ethical obligations to provide the legal representation your client needs and expects. Your boundaries cannot interfere with your ability to provide legal services to your clients. If you want to set boundaries, you will need to 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 make your job easier and more efficient. Use these resources to work fewer hours while still completing all of your work. Some examples of technology that can help include:

  • Cloud-based applications that allow you to use your applications and access your files remotely
  • Time tracking software so can reduce the time you spend entering time and editing bills
  • Docketing and calendar software that integrates with your phone's calendar so you always know your deadlines
  • Video conferencing services that eliminate travel time for meetings

Staff can also make you more efficient. Work out a routine where you allocate work across your entire team. Make sure everyone knows their roles and that they need to perform the same role for every case. This will reduce the time you spend asking if things got done and scrambling to complete those tasks that were left unfinished.

If done correctly, you and your staff will work like a well-oiled machine, and everyone will get more personal time.

Put Your Family Relationships First

The additional hours you work must come from somewhere. Your 80-hour work week probably means you skip meals, deprive yourself of sleep, and miss important family events.

But remember that your family will be there for you when you are old or sick. They will bring you joy throughout your life. And your contributions to their lives will usually outweigh anything you could do for your clients, no matter how good a lawyer you are.

Set aside time to spend with your family. If this means that you need to leave your office at 5 p.m. for family dinner every night and then work from home afterward, you might need to make that compromise. And find someone to cover your cases during family vacations. You will have a more relaxing vacation, and your clients will get more immediate attention.

Don’t Lose Yourself

You need to stay true to yourself. The money you make by working long lawyer hours will mean nothing if you give yourself a heart attack or end up drowning your stress in alcohol.

Work is just one element of your life. Maintaining a good work-life balance means understanding the other elements in your life and weighing them against your career.

Remember to take care of yourself. A successful career has much more meaning when you can enjoy it and share it with the people you love. Set aside time to do the things you enjoy. Your clients will not miss you if you take an hour to exercise at the health club. And they may thank you because physical activity improves cognitive output.

Sometimes law firms support and encourage lawyers to have a life outside the office. The best work-life balance law firms will accommodate the boundaries you set for your work life with flexible hours and staff to use that time more efficiently.

It’s Okay to Ask for Help

Asking for help is hard. But you have many sources of assistance if you choose to use them. Your staff can support you as you perform your work. Your family can adjust their expectations when your clients have a genuine emergency. Your associates, partners, and shareholders can cover for you when you need assistance with a case.

But you also have professional help if you need it. Therapists can help you work through stressful times. Substance abuse counselors can throw you a lifeline if you have turned to substances to deal with a hectic schedule. Your doctor can give you suggestions about stress management and keeping yourself healthy despite the long lawyer hours you work.

You cannot avoid all stress. Practicing law is inherently stressful, and lawyers work a lot of hours. Your clients rely on you for your help with important matters. Whether a client has millions of dollars at stake in a securities matter or their freedom at stake in a criminal matter, you could be the only person who the client trusts for help.

At the same time, you are entitled to a fair work-life balance. If you manage your daily tasks wisely, you will have the time to handle emergencies when they arise. This may induce stress in your life, but you will manage the emergency and go back to your desired work level.

It’s Okay to Be Human

You cannot do everything. You have limits just like everyone else does. You must understand that no one can work 80 hours a week for their entire career while maintaining good physical and mental health.

Oftentimes, the external pressures that you feel mean that you have not found the right fit. Changing your employer, your practice, or the way you handle your work might relieve some of those pressures. If the expectations others have of you do not meet your expectations, you probably need a change.

Letting clients go is not a sign of weakness. And telling partners and shareholders you cannot work during a family vacation is not insubordination. Accepting that you are human and that you have needs and desires will help you keep control over your life before your work takes control of you.

Being human means you have limits. Your body and mind can only take so many working hours. Avoid overloading yourself by delegating work and working more efficiently.

And sometimes, you will need to choose between going to a bar association luncheon or grabbing a sandwich so you can work through lunch. But making those decisions will be easier once you accept you cannot do everything and still have time for yourself and your family.

Finding Balance

Making the decision to balance your life can be hard. But once you make the decision, your path becomes clear. The steps to establishing a healthy balance between your work and the other important elements of your life are often apparent once you commit.

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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