A healthy work/life balance for fee earners

LAWFUSION Select LegalIs your firm a magnet for the best legal talent…or revolving door of discontented ‘could-have-beens’?

By Joanne Hunter, Head of Marketing, Select Legal Systems Limited

What is a healthy work/life balance?

A healthy work/life balance is different from person to person. Whilst work is an important aspect of life for many – it puts a roof over our heads, provides a sense of purpose and feeds our ambitions – it is worth remembering that work is only one ‘part’ of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Equally important to most people are things like; spending time with family, enjoying sports and socialising.

Whilst most lawyers readily admit long hours are part and parcel of what they signed up for, and they readily acknowledge they have one of the highest paid occupations around, the unpredictability of their long hours is often relentless and they end up with very little free time to enjoy the fruits of their success.

This is often much harder to swallow than initially anticipated when they joined the profession.

According to LawCare, a charity dedicated to supporting wellbeing in the legal profession, 38% of calls to their advice line are stress-related. Indeed stress is the most common reason for calling LawCare. Long hours and a poor work/life balance certainly add to a person’s stress levels and the legal professional seems to be working longer and harder than many other sectors.

Work life balance

The evidence

There is lots of data suggesting that as a nation we are not content with our work/life balance.

Looking at the general picture across the current statistics from TotallyMoney.com put the UK 12th out of 24 European countries for its work-life balance achievements. Also an article in The Independent referred to a TotallyMoney Survey that highlighted 60% of British workers said they don’t have a good work-life balance. Forty percent of those questions said they read or send work-related emails outside of office hours, and 38 % take work calls whilst on holiday.

Ivestec Private Banking reported that many individuals are dissatisfied with the amount of time they spend at work. The data they collected found that 25% of professionals in finance, law, teaching and healthcare admitted they are unhappy with their work/life balance.

There is also some very specific evidence about the legal profession on this topic too.  Legal Cheek keep an eye on arrive and leave times for trainee solicitors with regular surveys. Their most recent data shows the worst scenario was an average ‘leave-the-office-time’ of 10.01pm. Legal Cheek published the results of their 2017/18 survey of over 2000 junior lawyers from 60 UK-based law firms which recorded average arrival at work time and leave time on a daily basis. Their tables showed the latest average leave work time was 10.02pm. In fact rookie lawyers were racking up 9-12+ hour days according to the survey results. Along with average start and leave times Legal Cheek recorded hundreds of comments from trainee solicitors about their working hours.

In another Legal Cheek article one rookie lawyer was quoted as saying, “Sometimes I leave at 6pm and it’s an absolute dream. Other times I leave at 10pm and after weeks of finishing at 1am, 10pm feels like a dream.”

In perfect contradiction?

Is a healthy work/life balance in perfect contradiction with the law firm’s time-focused fee models?

When a business is built around legal expertise time of course is its most precious commodity.

How can a time-focused service business encourage its fee earners to take more time off without damaging the business? In a challenging economic climate Partners are under pressure to bring fees in and naturally they will pass that pressure onto the rest of the team in this competitive world.

A competitive advantage?

Alternatively is a healthy work/life balance a must for fee earners – in terms of a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining the best talent?

How do the top flyers distinguish between one employer and another?

To attract the best lawyers and hold onto them, forward-thinking law firms seem to be letting the world know that they are just as concerned about their employees outside of work as they are during their time spent inside the firm. They are putting measures in place that help all staff manage their work, their personal commitments and aspirations.

Working in law is certainly not all doom and gloom when it comes to achieving a work/life balance.  Some firms are getting it right. Carlos Barreto, the payroll manager at Stephens & Scown, who also sings in the company choir ‘The Scown Roses’ was quoted in Cornwall Live saying, “A good work-life balance is encouraged here and the firm has gone to great lengths to make changes that have benefited not only the business, but also the staff.”

This is the 4th consecutive year that Stephens Scown has been ranked in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For (mid-sized companies category).

Work/life balance tips for law firms

Is there more you could do?

Here is a summary of the best tips I have found from a variety of management  pundits, HR resources and legal experts.

Home working

There has been a strong culture of ‘presenteeism’ in law firms and changing this might be a step too far for many traditional legal businesses. However, eliminating the daily grind of the commute for fee earners by trusting them to work from home could be a clever strategy for law firms focused on attracting and keeping the cream of the profession.

It is well documented that the overall impact of home working on productivity is incredibly positive. Home working often provides a win/win – it’s popular with many employees and also gives them the opportunity to achieve a longer, more productive working day.

ACAS have regularly highlighted that homeworkers tend to work in excess of their contracted hours and that home working has a positive impact on their well-being.

A good legal technology partner should be able to provide reliable tools for seamless home working for your fee earners and support staff alike.

Notice and show gratitude

Make sure Partners and Management show appreciation when they notice someone working late. A kind word at the right time often means much more than you might imagine. Let your people know that working late should be the exception not the rule, but when they do – make sure they are acknowledged for going the extra mile.

According to Legal Cheek Shoosmiths reward lawyers for their hard work with gestures such as giving them their birthday off each year. Fieldfisher gives its fee earners an extra day at Christmas. However, smaller gestures such as providing cakes or ice-creams seem to be sweetening up the extra time employees are having to spend in the office.

Some firms provide gym membership for their staff, often a well-received perk that can provide fee earners with a much needed boost during their busy working week.

Give your fee earners the tools they need

A good Practice Management System should provide your fee earners with a multitude of tools to help them make better use of their time. Time-saving software such as case management workflows for different areas of law should automate much of the repetitive work a fee earner faces on a daily basis, freeing them up to concentrate on providing specialist legal expertise, where the real client value lies. Efficiency-enhancing modules such as a ‘Court Bundle Generator’ shaves hours off prep time for lawyers who regularly go to trial.

A good practice management system should cost no more to run than a poor one. Why give your fee earners anything less?

Set a good example

Partners and senior lawyers should be setting a good example to the rest of the team by aiming for a good work/life balance for themselves. Yes to some extent you are all revenue-generators but that’s not ALL you are. You and your fee earners are not robots. You are human beings first and foremost and so are your staff. Treat your people well and the majority will go beyond the call of duty to do the best job they possibly can for you.


Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, e.g. having flexible start and finish times, staggered flexi-time for teams.

According to ACAS the Working Time Regulations provide rights to:

a limit of an average 48 hours a week on the hours a worker can be required to work, though individuals may choose to work longer by “opting out”

paid annual leave of 5.6 weeks’ a year

11 consecutive hours’ rest in any 24-hour period

a 20-minute rest break if the working day is longer than six hours

one day off each week

Many lawyers choose to opt-out of taking advantage of these rights.

In the legal profession, the pressure to go above and beyond what should be normally expected is very real. A flexi-time arrangement can be a real win/win for law firms and their employees.

Part-time job-share works well for many law firms too. Two talented lawyers each handling 50% of the case-load can often achieve much more than one very stretched individual trying to be all things to all men.

This level of flexibility means the firm gets to attract and retain good people and the people are able to fulfil their personal responsibilities as parents or caring for elderly relatives.

EMG Solicitors, users of LAWFUSION legal practice management software, is a good example of this.

Set clear priorities

When priorities are unclear, employees tend to over-work because they presume everything must get done as quickly as possible. Making sure training and support is in place re priority setting, the art of delegation and time management for new employees is critical and regularly reinforcing this message for your longer-term workers is incredibly important. In a world of fierce competition amongst many fee earners in their journey to achieving ‘Partner’ level things like this are often forgotten.

Blurred lines

Few lawyers can say they never take work home.  However, the line between home and work tends to blur beyond what’s reasonable when fee earners take too much home.

Discourage unproductive work habits and encourage fee earners to use the tools you have supplied to help them improve efficiency.

Reduce reliance on paper

The paper chase for lawyers can be exhausting and stressful for teams under pressure.  In this day and age with the levels of automation available there is absolutely no need for this.  Check out my blog “The Paperless Law Firm” which expands on this sentiment, and our Fidler & Pepper case study too.

Recognise signs of overwork

When stress is allowed to linger it can lead to diminished performance and serious physical health problems – often of great negative impact to both the individual and the business.

A person who has worked too long and too hard will often burn themselves out, personally and professionally. It is important that managers spot signs of burn out and stress which often shows itself in term s of absenteeism, error rates and increased difficulty getting along with colleagues. Some firms provide employee-support programmes and work with organisations like LawCare to promote wellbeing.

Valuing time

A fee earner that says yes to everything is on a hiding to nothing.  If you don’t value your own time, then how can you expected others to value it?  Giving your time away easily and readily to anyone who gate-crashes your day is a big mistake.  This applies to both your fee earning time and your personal time.  Both have equal value in different ways. If a fee earner does not set expectations about the value of their time, others will continue to take it whenever they see fit as the firm’s profitability continues to fritter away.

When a fee earner truly values their own time, they tend to see the benefit of recording it accurately.  Recording time isn’t always fully embraced by lawyers. When they are working on a challenging case, juggling lots of facts recording their time can often slip to the bottom of their priority list. A good Practice Management System should make it so easy for fee earners to record their time that it becomes second nature and far less of a chore.

The Time Factor is another one of my blogs that offers an interesting perspective for Partners and Management on valuing time, managing time and recording time.

Adopt a formal work/life balance policy

Putting in place an organisation-wide policy offering a range of work/life balance measures is the way to go. It means all employees are clear on what is available and it is formal acknowledgement that they are appreciated as human beings. It also saves management time and reduces conflict as inconsistencies in management decisions are greatly reduced.

Select Legal Systems is a leading supplier legal practice management software for law firms.  Their flagship product, LAWFUSION, offers everything from legal accounts and time recording to case management and marketing software. If you want more information about LAWFUSION’S many efficiency-enhancing, time-saving features that will help you promote a better work/life balance for your fee earners – please contact us during office hours on 01482 567601 or contact us online at any other time.


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