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Will lawyers’ hours increase in a recession?

In a declining economy, some law firms are likely to demand more from their staff in a bid to maintain profitability, forcing lawyers to work longer hours — not only to drive client success but also to avoid potential redundancies.

user iconLauren Croft 03 July 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, and last week, 39 per cent of lawyers said they were working over 50 hours a week — well over the “ordinary hours” of 38 hours a week stated in the Fair Work Act.

But despite the idea that overworking should be balanced out by wellness initiatives and trends such as loud leaving, certain lawyers may be expected to work longer hours in the face of economic uncertainty and a looming recession.


Crossover Law Group founder and principal solicitor Marial Lewis said that this would depend on the type of legal industry lawyers are in, as well as internal firm cultures and expectations.

“Economic downturns can lead to a more competitive environment, reduced demand for some legal services, and increased pressure on law firms to maintain profitability. In these situations, law firms may expect their lawyers to take on heavier workloads and bill more hours to generate revenue and retain valuable clients. Additionally, during a recession, clients may become more cost-conscious and demand greater value for their legal fees. This can put further pressure on lawyers to work longer hours to deliver quality services within tighter budgets,” she explained.

“Unfortunately, the other issue during this time is the disparity in salary expectations during challenging economic periods. Law firms may be cautious about increasing compensation or bonuses when their financial performance is affected by the recession, whilst lawyers may feel the pressure of working long hours with no real salary increases or bonuses for their efforts. This can create additional stress and frustration among lawyers who may feel undervalued for their efforts.

“However, we can expect once again to see the difference in firms based on their values and cultures. Not all firms will respond to a recession in the same way, similar to the pandemic and other technological evolution. Some firms will prioritise work/life balance and wellbeing, while others will focus more on maximising billable hours and high profits. The specific circumstances and culture within each firm will greatly influence the extent of pressure on lawyers and the potential for increased hours.”

Conversely, Naiman Clarke managing director Elvira Naiman said that recession or not, “lawyers work very long hours”.

“This usually doesn’t come as a surprise to those starting in the industry. I’m not sure whether there is increased pressure to work longer hours in the face of a recession as long hours generally come with the territory. Many lawyers we speak to, particularly those juggling caring and personal commitments, are at capacity already,” she said.

“I think for those who can put the extra time here or there, they might be subconsciously wanting to put their best foot forward, perhaps thinking — if I’m working longer/harder than my colleagues and if there are redundancies, perhaps I’ll be saved. But I’m not sure most lawyers can be doing a whole lot more hours than they are doing already.”

A separate poll conducted by Lawyers Weekly earlier this year found that lawyers are “very exhausted”, with exhaustion and burnout in the profession being an issue flagged by a recent panel discussion held by the Law Society of NSW.

This is a notion that a number of legal recruiters and legal professionals have agreed with. In July last year, Travis Schultz & Partners associate James Leggo said that “modern Australian work culture is not something to be envied” and that he has already seen many practitioners leave the legal sphere entirely, in search of greater work/life balance. Burnout was also revealed to be of top concern to in-house legal teams, too.

For firms who don’t prioritise wellbeing amid global economic turbulence, a shift may be needed so that lawyers don’t feel overworked, according to Swaab partner Michael Byrnes.

“The law is a profession, and, like some other professions, there is no substitute for putting in the necessary hours and work to do what is required for clients. That said, there can be a tendency for some firms and employers of lawyers to add to the burden of legal staff with tasks and requirements of limited value,” he said.

“Firms sometimes treat the time of lawyers, which is charged as a valuable commodity to clients, as an endless free resource for themselves. A shift in that mentality, and an understanding that such demands can be an incursion into the limited time available for rest, recovery and recreation.”

However, recessionary conditions mean that lawyers could feel like their employment may be at risk moving forward.

“While lawyers are better protected than most occupational groups against recession, they are not immune from its effects. No one wants to be one of the employees on the chopping block in the event of cuts. One way lawyers often perceive they can demonstrate commitment and value to their employer is to work longer hours.

“The pressure to work longer hours will often come from the lawyers themselves rather than directly from management, although it can be a product of decisions that management has made or are proposing to make in response to recessionary conditions,” Mr Byrnes added.

“There is also the reality that after cuts have been made, the work needing to be performed is then divided between fewer people, which can obviously lead to longer hours for remaining staff.”

This has already been seen within the profession. Last month, both Clyde & Co and MinterEllison admitted to making redundancies to back-office roles, such as business operations and administrative support.

Beacon Legal director Alex Gotch said that these sorts of cuts and the threat of redundancies could also mean lawyers are working extra hours.

“A high proportion of lawyers commit to working long hours when the job demands it, whether in a boom market or a recession. In a slower or a recessive market, many lawyers will continue to work long hours if the work is available, and may go the extra mile to show their worth and commitment to their partners,” he said.

“Although, many lawyers are also taking advantage of a less demanding work environment whilst the market is slower, to recover from a booming previous 18 months and anticipation of the next boom, which is a question of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.”

Moving forward, however, firms and lawyers alike need to take steps to properly address when long hours are required and if they can be helped.

“It is crucial to recognise whether long working hours are an inherent lifestyle expectation within specific firms and environments or if they are only required during particular critical periods. Burnout, stress, and anxiety are pervasive issues in the legal field, and both firms and lawyers should be vigilant in protecting themselves from the trap of prolonged burnout, which can often go unnoticed until it reaches a critical stage,” Ms Lewis added.

“Regrettably, many individuals end up leaving the legal profession entirely, mistakenly believing it to be an either-or situation. However, with the right tools and firms that re-evaluate their expectations and processes, lawyers can lead fulfilling lives while also providing enhanced client service. By prioritising work/life balance, fostering supportive cultures, and implementing sustainable practices, firms can create an environment where lawyers thrive both personally and professionally. This holistic approach not only benefits the wellbeing of lawyers but also contributes to improved client outcomes and overall satisfaction.”