Should we rethink the ‘standard’ work week?

Posted by DM Jones, a US attorney and associate writer for Legal Futures Associate Casedo

Burnout: Just a ‘normal’ working week would help

Every now and then, I peek at the American Bar Association’s annual ‘Profile of the Legal Profession’. And I’m never a fan of what I see.

In this article, I won’t focus on the well-documented disparity between American lawyers and the general US population when it comes to issues with substance abuse and mental health (although the numbers remain alarming – according to a 2016 report, 21% of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers versus just 6.4% of the total US population. Moreover, 28% of lawyers face depression, 19% face severe anxiety, and 11.5% face suicidal thoughts).

Instead, I’m interested in exploring an undercurrent – perhaps even a ‘but for’ cause – that seems well within our control as a profession and even as a global society of knowledge workers.

I’m talking about the work week.

According to the 2020 ABA report, only 5% of US lawyers work a ‘consistent standard schedule’ and just 11% rarely work long hours. Looking at the other side of the spectrum, 9% of lawyers reported that they ‘never stop working’.

So, where does that put the workweek? Based on Clio’s most recent trend report, the average full-time US attorney plans to work 46.8 hours per week but ends up working 49.6 hours. And the report gently points out that those extra 2.8 hours per week add up to 140 additional hours—roughly 3.5 weeks—of unplanned work each year.

Across the pond, UK lawyers might not be logging 50-hour work weeks, but informal reports aren’t promising either.

For example, as one commentator points out, a solicitor with a modest target of 1,400 billable hours per year will need to account for approximately six hours of billable time per day, which – assuming the solicitor never takes a holiday – leaves around one hour in a 37-hour workweek to complete all other non-billable matters.

Yeah. We can all read between those lines.

If you’re in Camp Never-Stops, you may view your daily grind as a badge of honour. But from the outside looking in, I see an engine pushed hard and showing signs of failure.

Just take a look at Bloomberg Law’s recent attorney workload and hours survey, where attorneys reported feeling work burnout 54% of the time. Moreover, unsurprisingly, among the attorneys whose wellbeing had declined last year, 79% reported an inability to disconnect from work and 78% reported a heavier workload.

To be sure, I’m not the only one pointing out these issues. Still, the commentary I’ve come across tends to call for lawyers to move to a ‘standard’ workweek, joining fellow knowledge workers toward the middle of the bell curve.

I suspect that, if our profession shifted to a ‘normal’ work week, it would improve our work product – spreading the work among fresher, happier, more satisfied human beings. I also suspect that we’d see substance abuse and mental health statistics normalise.

That said, I’m just not so sure ‘normal’ should be the goal, not when US burnout rates hovered around 50% before Covid-19 came and cranked the dial toward 60%.

So, what is a ‘normal’ workweek? It’s about the about the same in the UK as it is in the US, with most American workers starting the workday somewhere between 6am and 10am, with roughly an 8/8/8 approach to each workday—that is, eight hours for work, eight for leisure, and eight for sleep—and a 5-in/2-out approach to the work week.

This schedule is about as normal as it gets. But is it optimal?

It’s worth pointing out that we inherited the ‘standard’ work week from labour movements in the 1800s and early 1900s that sought to protect factory workers from exploitative working practices, including 100-hour work weeks.

A century later, we carry on with the compromise and thereby reaffirm the system. But I wonder whether organisational leaders are giving the inherited status quo much ongoing thought.

I wish I could push a button to reveal the optimum workweek per person, striking the perfect balance between each person’s quality of life and quality of their professional output.

Although I don’t have that magic button, I’ve decided to pay attention to the next best thing. That is, I’m paying attention to organisations that are experimenting with the work week, daring to turn dials on the where, when and how long, and generously sharing what they’ve learned.

I’m also listening to futurists, who predict widespread changes to the way we approach work.

I may not agree with everything I read. But that’s the point, isn’t it? I’m choosing to stay in the conversation while adhering to tried-and-true principles I adopted in law school.

That is, I’m continuously reflecting on my position, challenging assumptions, and keeping an open mind. And I encourage all lawyers to do the same.


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