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50+ hour weeks remain too common for lawyers

Law has always been a vocation that imposes a greater volume of work than the average profession. However, in the current climate, legal employers should take a closer look at the hours their staff are working and invest in technology and flexibility measures to minimise lawyers feeling overworked.

user iconLauren Croft 26 June 2023 Big Law
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In May this year, it was revealed that 82 per cent of Australian workers were feeling pressured to work additional hours — with legal recruiters at the time confirming that “lawyers’ hours have always been long”.

This came after 83 per cent of Lawyers Weekly’s audience admitted that they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to work while on leave, something associate professor of psychiatry at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, Greg de Moore, said was “damaging”.

“Working increased hours at home and not separating work life from your home life is damaging,” he told Lawyers Weekly in April.


“It results in increased stress and burnout, which, in turn, over time, can result in serious psychological consequences such as anxiety, depression, strained family relationships, and a significant impact on physical health. That it can result in poorer work performance, absenteeism, and reduced morale in the workplace.”

What constitutes additional working hours was also up for debate in March, in the form of a legal battle between “teal” independent member for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan and her chief of staff, Sally Rugg.

In that matter, Ms Rugg alleged she was dismissed from her job for exercising her right to refuse to work unreasonable additional hours. The Fair Work Act 2009 (Act) states that 38 hours per week are considered to be “ordinary hours” — with employees able to refuse to work anything beyond that.

As reported by 9 News last month, the lawsuit was settled for approximately $100,000 in April.

Are lawyers working ‘reasonable’ hours?

Lawyers Weekly recently asked its audience, via a LinkedIn poll, how many hours they were working on average per week, with a fifth working 50 to 60 hours per week and 13 per cent working more than 60 hours a week.

At the time of closing, the poll results were as follows:

Twenty-eight per cent of the 1,427 voters said that they work 40 hours or less a week (“reasonable hours”), 40 per cent said they work 40 to 50 hours a week, 19 per cent said they work 50 to 60 hours a week, and 13 per cent said they work 60 or more hours a week.

The LinkedIn poll is, of course, not a scientific study and should not be taken as such. However, it does offer an insight into the mindset of Australian lawyers and how they are currently working post-pandemic.

Working weeks of 50-plus hours are “not uncommon” in the legal industry, which Crossover Law Group founder and principal solicitor Marial Lewis said was due to a number of factors, including client expectations, the need to meet billable hour targets, the competitive nature of the industry, and the complexity of legal matters.

“In many traditional law firms, billable hours are the metric to measure productivity and revenue generation, a sad reality for many. This can create pressure on lawyers to work longer hours to meet or exceed billable hour targets set by their employers. The expectation to be available and responsive to clients, even outside regular business hours, can further contribute to the need for longer workweeks,” she said.

“In non-traditional law firms, there may also be expectations to work long hours to build a new practice or take it to the next level. Lawyers must be cautious about environments that claim non-traditional methods but still expect long hours in other ways.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought its own set of challenges. While remote work and flexibility have become more prevalent during the pandemic, it has also blurred the boundaries between work and personal life for many lawyers. With increased accessibility through technology, lawyers may feel a heightened expectation to be available and responsive, leading to longer hours worked.”

For lawyers to be working over 60 hours a week is also not uncommon, Swaab partner Michael Byrnes confirmed.

“If lawyers have a billable target of 6.5 or seven hours per day, that will often, at a minimum, involve working nine to 10 hours per day to meet that billable target once you add in administration, marketing, training and other non-billable tasks,” he told Lawyers Weekly.

“Having said that, there are many other professions and occupations where similar hours are required or routinely worked.”

Ten or 11 hours a day is also “quite standard” within the legal profession, particularly during busy times — and these are hours that Naiman Clarke managing director Elvira Naiman said are “close to impossible” to juggle with home and family commitments.

“Anecdotally, males seem to juggle a little better than females — especially those with kids — and this may be due to the fact that women are still carrying more of the household-related workload, even if both partners are working similar hours. Leaning on family is usually a go-to for those fortunate enough to have extended family living not too far away, consciously finding ‘me’ time — to take a walk, have lunch with a friend, do a yoga or gym class,” she said.

“Law firms are a business, and ultimately, they answer to their clients. I’m not sure what law firms can do [about long hours]. Those that get it right take each person’s individual situation into account when assessing ‘performance’ and providing flexibility. I think work-from-home flexibility, if it remains the norm, can and does take some pressure off. It’s tricky — the partners of these firms are also working very long hours and put enormous pressure on themselves. At some point, there won’t be enough graduates entering law and then maybe something will change, but I think we are a very long way from there.”

However, Beacon Legal Director Alex Gotch said that while most lawyers would work “well in excess” of 60 hours a week during busy periods, this workload is slightly justifiable given legal salaries.

Within the top-tier and large firms, working 50 to 60 hours per week isn’t unusual, especially if this is a combination of billable and non-billable hours. Most jobs [that] pay you good money require you to work hard!” he said.

“During the boom period in 2021 and 2022, firms made a big effort to hire to ensure their team numbers were sufficient so that the work could be spread out. In lean teams or teams where a number of lawyers had left their roles, the lawyers were often overworked.”

What firms — and lawyers — can do to combat overworking

Although inherent areas of certain types of law driven by deadlines and court dates can mean that longer hours worked at certain critical periods are inevitable, there are a number of things firms can do to help ease the burden for their employees.

This, Mr Byrnes ascertained, includes implementing increased flexibility and WFH measures so that lawyers who are working late on a client matter don’t need to be in the office early the next day and to help lawyers save time on commuting less and eliminate office distractions.

“The time of lawyers (particularly junior lawyers) can sometimes be treated like a ‘magic pudding’, an infinite resource that firms can use to have lawyers do various non-billable tasks, some of which have minimal value or impact. Firms and legal employers should carefully consider whether all of the non-billable burdens placed upon legal staff are justifiable,” he explained.

“There are, of course, some essential non-billable activities that are an important adjunct to successful and effective practice but other non-billable tasks should be allocated judiciously to lawyers already very busy with billable work. Is the task really worth limiting the social life or even sleep of the lawyer to whom it is allocated?

“Active work allocation is another way firms can take pressure off overworked staff. Unlike many other occupations and professions, the hours worked by lawyers in private practice can generally be ascertained from timesheets. Management should actively monitor hours worked by individual staff to endeavour to seek to more evenly allocate work. It won’t always be possible — particularly where a lawyer has an important role in a fast-moving, large matter — but genuine attempts should be made.”

It is also worth noting, Ms Lewis added, that workloads can vary depending on practice areas, seniority, firm culture, and individual preferences as well as right use of technology and delegation within legal teams.

Lawyers can manage their workload and maintain their wellbeing by seeking balance during periods of long hours, ensuring their mental health is prioritised, and safeguarding the quality of their work. If employers perpetuate a culture that equates value and worth solely with hours worked, you should consider seeking alternative environments to escape toxic work settings. Taking a break to reset and then reassess personal priorities can be beneficial,” she added.

“On the other hand, to alleviate pressure on their staff, firms should encourage lawyers to prioritise self-care, establish boundaries, and effectively communicate their needs for a healthy work/life balance. Additionally, firms can promote employee wellbeing by implementing support systems, recognising the contributions of their lawyers, and fostering a sustainable work environment.

“Other tools include investment in technology, recognising and rewarding their lawyers for their hard work the way each employee prefers as well as offering professional development and training. It is always important to feel valued and supported, especially in seasons where harder work is required by all.”

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