Weekly take: Law firms must help juniors handle long hours
Junior lawyers at half of the UK's major firms work more than 10 hours a day on average, so firms must do what they can to make work more manageable
I apologise for writing yet another story about junior lawyers’ struggles at law firms. But there have been some shocking (or not) statistics published by the UK legal news website Legal Cheek that I could not ignore.
Lawyers and trainees at almost half of the 103 law firms surveyed by the publication are working more than 10 hours per day on average.
At four firms, lawyers are working more than 12 hours per day.
The list features several firms with strong intellectual property practices, including Taylor Wessing, DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, and Jones Day.
Shockingly, Legal Cheek reported that lawyers are actually putting in slightly fewer hours compared to last year.
And yet the firm that topped the list, Kirkland & Ellis, still has an average work day of more than 12 hours.
The average junior lawyer logs in at 9:33 am and signs out at 10:01pm.
Last year, lawyers at the same firm reported that they worked for close to 14 hours a day, starting at 9:19am and finishing at 11:11pm.
Let that sink in.
The firms that appear to require their junior staff to put in the most hours are mainly large US or UK-headquartered firms.
Those with better, but still relatively long, hours are mostly comparatively small practices.
It’s easy to blame firms for enforcing long working hours.
But of course, most people would not work late into the night every day if they were consistently unhappy about it, especially when alternatives are available.
Comments underneath the article, apparently written by lawyers, suggest that some are okay with the long hours because of the hefty compensation they receive.
Others said the simple luxuries of getting a takeaway meal and a cab ride back home paid for by the firm, a service some firms offer to staff working late, is a fair compromise.
From my experience working in the legal industry, I know that young lawyers dream of working for large firms not only because of the pay but also the opportunity to handle the best cases.
If they think the opportunity to work for top clients and on top cases is worth putting in those extra hours, then maybe law firms don’t deserve a backlash.
But do law firms, or at least the senior partners at firms, recognise the extra efforts their juniors put in?
I fear the answer is no.
A senior partner in charge of a large US firm’s IP practice recently complained to me that associate salaries were going through the roof.
The lawyer said colleagues at other firms felt the same way.
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t mention anything about the compensation enjoyed by partners.
The partner hoped that artificial intelligence and legal technology would alleviate the need to rely so much on junior associates in the coming years.
Tasks like trademark searches and opposition advice wouldn’t need to be supported by contributions from associates, the lawyer suggested.
If that attitude is widespread then firms may not look at technology to alleviate the burden on junior associates but rather use it to make wide-scale job cuts at a junior level.
Associates may think their salary is justified by their workload, but some may feel differently.
I am not saying that all firms or partners feel the same way.
But there are other tell-tale signs of law firms’ attitudes towards their staff.
For instance, in recent months, an increasing number of law firms have tried to coax or mandate staff to spend more time in the office.
Junior lawyers are, of course, disproportionately affected by such policies.
Return-to-office mandates may only get stricter as large law firms try to justify maintaining physical offices in premium locations.
Assuming Legal Cheek’s survey has been at least a few months in the making, it’s likely that quite a few respondents will have been working from home when they filled in the survey.
If they had to return to the office, the hours spent on work-related tasks would get worse.
And that’s not because lawyers are likely to work any less when they work from home.
Working from the office can often mean physically waiting until the late hours for a partner or client to approve drafts at their own convenience. The client or partner may not even get to that draft at the end of the day.
A junior lawyer working from home could easily log out after completing their part of the job and log back in when they heard back from the client or partner.
Working from office could also mean being assigned last-minute tasks that a senior lawyer wouldn’t have bothered to email had their junior been working remotely.
Factor in commuting time to all this and the work-life balance of junior lawyers could get much worse.
The Legal Cheek article also mentioned that slow market conditions may have caused the year-on-year reduction in junior lawyers' working hours.
That’s also a sign that working hours may go up again in the future.
I don’t expect firms to change how they work entirely. But they could at least find a way to better the lives of those putting in extreme hours.
The first step towards that, undoubtedly, is allowing more flexibility in how and where associates work.
Not having a requirement for in-office work would be a good start.
Some firms already offer such flexibility. If they can make it work, I'm sure others can as well.
Increased flexibility would at least ensure that junior lawyers can save time by not commuting every day or that they can spend their short breaks during the working day with family, taking the edge off long hours.
Physically putting in long hours in the office must be an exception, not a routine.
It’s also probably a good idea to introduce practice changes that allow some flexibility in deliverables.
Those who have worked in the legal industry know that junior lawyers are often victims of false urgencies at the workplace.
For example, lawyers are often told to turn over their deliverables, or targets, within a few hours or a day.
However, when those drafts get to the table of the responsible partner or client, they can be left unattended for days or even weeks.
Again, allowing some flexibility based on actual and not perceived urgency could help take some of the burden off juniors' shoulders.
Plenty of research suggests that women are disproportionately affected by stringent workplace policies, as they still usually have to pick up most of the workload in their personal lives at home.
Firms also need to ensure workplace demands don’t put their women staff in an inequitable position.
None of these are radical suggestions like stronger labour laws, which I have advocated for in the past.
I stand by the need for more radical change, by the way, but the suggestions in this article are more achievable in the short term.
Slight tweaks in workplace policies can help make the lives of junior lawyers considerably better, especially when many of them seem willing to put in the extra work.
Law firms must do what they can to lend a helping hand.
After all, they are the ones reaping the benefits of all those extra hours.