Partners want to work less but have more time for unbillable activities

On the clock: Lawyers want fewer billable hours

Three in 10 partners at large firms are unhappy with their working hours, with many also not keen to undertake non-billable work unrelated to business development, research has found.

Thomson Reuters said younger lawyers, along with female lawyers, were the least happy with the number of hours they were working, “demonstrating the widely acknowledged push factor which causes many in these groups to leave the industry”.

Taken with the “common mismatches” between the non-billable areas of responsibility lawyers had and wanted, the legal information giant said: “We propose that firms can make substantial gains by addressing inequalities in working hours and better matching non-billable tasks to lawyers’ individual interests.”

Thomson Reuters surveyed 1,170 lawyers, mainly partners, across 50 countries, including 173 in the UK, who had been identified as ‘stand-out’ lawyers by senior in-house counsel for its Stellar Performance report.

The majority (53%) were satisfied with their total working hours, while 17% wanted to work more and 30% fewer but every age group and both genders wanted fewer billable hours: overall, they wanted to 150 fewer billable hours a year (to 1,400) and 100 more non-billable hours (to 700).

The under-40s wanted to biggest reduction in billable hours – 250 fewer to 1,500 – followed by women (200 fewer to 1,400).

Thomson Reuters said: “In today’s highly competitive professional labour market, law firms need to adapt to ensure a long-working-hours culture doesn’t drive away lawyers still in the early stages of their careers.

“As these younger professionals mature (assuming they stay in law firms) and older lawyers retire, law firms will need to prepare for downward pressure on working hours at every level of seniority.”

Attitudes towards work among the ‘middle’ generation of lawyers aged between 40 and 60 were “simply different”, the report said.

“It is clear from our data that lawyers in these age groups are not seeking to slow down; indeed, many remain ambitious and eager to make substantial billable and non-billable contributions to their firms.”

Almost all groups wanted more non-billable hours and none wanted fewer but only 2% were completely happy with their set of non-billable responsibilities.

The most popular activities were client relationship development, new business development, practice development, and strategy and planning.

The least popular were developing alternative delivery models and wellbeing initiatives, while there was little enthusiasm for other internal-facing roles such as recruitment and training.

A lack of recognition or reward for non-billable activities, along with prohibitive billing targets, were cited as barriers to non-billable work, along with client pressure – and the report recommended that firms adjust their compensation packages and approach to performance management to overcome this.

The report added: “Firms might also consider more carefully how they engage with and utilise their support professionals. Many firms still fall into the trap of seeing these team members as a cost and believe wrongly that using lawyers on these tasks is somehow free.

“Our research shows that the consequence of this attitude among law firm leaders can result in dissatisfaction for lawyers who feel their talents are being wrongly directed.

“The support professionals themselves may also experience a lack of empowerment and corresponding dissatisfaction.”

Other issues covered by the research included environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues, with 90% of UK respondents seeing their clients’ businesses increasingly focus on them.

Three-quarters of matters still use hourly rates and over half go over estimate – it was not much better where firms had dedicated pricing teams – but the research found that three-quarters of matters changed scope during their duration.

When respondents considered the main aspect of their most-recent matter where both the firm and client team could have done better, a large proportion highlighted scoping and the need for more comprehensive briefings.

“Additionally, lawyers felt that more detailed background information and greater clarity of needs and goals should have been provided by clients — all of which may have enabled more accurate scoping of matters.

“For their own part, lawyers acknowledged a responsibility to better understand their clients’ businesses and the context of their legal needs, thus being able to better anticipate issues.”

Only 1% of matters had a project management professional involved from the law firm side.

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