The Lives of Lawyers: For Lawyers, The Perfect Day Is About More Than Maximizing Billable Hours

For lawyers struggling to stay afloat, imagining—let alone enjoying—a perfect day with time for both self-care and work, sounds like a cruel joke, a luxury reserved for other people not drowning in billable hour requirements. How can an individual justify taking time for oneself when performance is measured in six-minute increments, and when there is always more to do, including non-billable work, and not enough hours in the day to get it all done as it is? Keeping up (or trying to) with the increased demands of the hyper-paced global marketplace for immediate responsiveness has turned modern lawyering into an acrobatic art of working more hours, endlessly juggling competing demands, and somehow, never managing to do it all. For lawyers, who tend to be over-achieving, goal-oriented perfectionists, justifying time for oneself in such a landscape comes last on the list of priorities and can seem unjustified, selfish, and even lazy.

But what many law firms don’t yet realize is that they encourage this mentality at their own risk—because when lawyers start to focus on volume of hours at the expense of quality of work and become so obsessed with achieving near-impossible billable hour targets that they can no longer adequately take care of themselves, everyone, including law firms and clients, bears the costs.

The Fallacy That More Hours Means More Productivity

It is understandable why law firms are demanding more and more from their lawyers. Many firms are facing an increasingly competitive legal services landscape, resulting in constant pressure to lower rates and provide speedier turnaround times. In this climate, the idea that lawyers should work fewer hours and not more seems illogical and patently unsound.

But dig a little deeper, and you see that this cannot be further from the truth. For years, as billable hour minimums have increased and administrative tasks have shifted to associates following overhead reductions, employee health, morale, and retention have dropped, along with productivity and efficiency. According to the 2019 Clio Legal Trends Report, the average lawyer typically spends only 2.5 hours per day on billable work. And the most recent Legal Executive Institute Law Firm Business Leaders Report notes that approximately a third of respondents see lawyer underproductivity as a high risk to profitability.

We have reached a clear inflection point. If working 24/7 isn’t helping law firms achieve better results for their clients or higher profits, and is reducing employee morale and health all the same, we need to figure out what must change—because it is simply impossible to add more hours to the day, and business as usual is running down firms’ most valuable assets: their lawyers.

The time has never been more right for lawyers and law firms to prioritize not just the volume of billable hours, but attorney health and wellbeing, and the cultivation of human traits that truly define successful lawyering, and that can produce real value in the short-and long-term: like empathy, passion, and curiosity that can produce successful outcomes, improve relationships with clients, generate new business opportunities, deepen expertise in emerging and niche areas, and otherwise allow lawyers to stay agile and relevant in this fast-paced world.

Client-side pressure to abandon the billable hour and technological advancements that can and will continue to shift the legal practice are not a curse, but a blessing—a fantastic opportunity to reconfigure work practices, to understand that our most valuable assets as lawyers are our human ones, and work to cultivate these in the coming years. To generate real value, we must recharge and reinvigorate ourselves.

Configuring Your Day around Output, Not Hours

Although the billable hour has become the industry benchmark for measuring value, a lawyer’s most valuable asset is not limited to the amount of hours he or she can work without rest. The best lawyers are those who are curious, reliable, passionate, and able to see the big picture while keeping track of the most minute details. Those who can think quickly and well—marrying high-grade critical and analytical reasoning skills with resourcefulness and out-the-box thinking to creatively resolve novel issues. Those who can provide high-quality counsel and work products attuned to their client’s specific needs—with the empathy required to acutely understand their clients and the compassion needed to support them through some of the most stressful periods of their lives.

So how can we foster those attributes in ourselves? By allowing ourselves to truly be our best selves—by engineering the ideal day that allows us to deliver the best outcomes for our clients and make our firms proud, without compromising our own physical and mental health.

To achieve something that comes close to a perfect workday requires that you reclaim time currently spent on tasks that provide you with little value. To win back time for yourself, find time that you can recover during your day and reclaim it using some of the following tips.

  • Keep technology in check—control it, so it doesn’t control you. Turn off, delete, and avoid notifications, apps, habits, and anything else that distracts, frustrates, or otherwise works against you.
  • Take a hard look at the activities that suck time out of your day and provide you with little value. Can any of the essential tasks be automated with technology or eliminated using smart workflow solutions? Adopt tools, processes, and habits that lighten your load incrementally every day and in the long run, so you can focus on doing what matters more to you. For example, ZERØ streamlines and automates email management workflows on desktop and mobile by predictively filing emails into your document management system or moving emails in bulk to their corresponding Outlook folders—so that you no longer need to manually file or organize emails using drag and drop methods or antiquated Outlook plug-ins.
  • Channel feelings of stress into feelings of excitement when possible (you got this!). Less time worrying, procrastinating, or otherwise fretting means more time for everything else!

Once you have managed to win some time back, try focusing on activities that will provide you value—even ones that aren’t billable.

  • Surround yourself with people who uplift you, opt for experiences that fulfill you, and smile even when the world isn’t smiling back. Abundant energy is infectious—it is more energizing, contagious and inspirational than you can imagine.
  • Manage and communicate needs and expectations with clients and colleagues while practicing patience and understanding.
  • Strengthen relationships with peers and colleagues. Apart from boosting morale in the workplace, deepened ties and open channels of communications facilitate delegation, enhance teamwork, and streamline work processes.
  • Avoid burnout. Counteract and reduce stress by stretching, meditating, exercising, practicing gratitude, spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies, and sleeping!
  • Pique your curiosity—explore and create. Pursue continuing education, stay abreast of legal trends that excite you, and generate new opportunities for your firm.
  • Allow your idea of a perfect day to change as you change. Living a life aligned with your values and goals requires discipline. But discipline is not about forcing ourselves into submission to do what we don’t want to do. Discipline is about deliberately choosing what matters to us most over what’s easiest for us now.

There is no universal benchmark for perfection—and no day will be absolutely perfect, even by the standards you set for yourself. Things come up, accidents happen, and more often than not, for us over-achievers, a perfect day is an impossibility anyway—there is always more we could have done, fewer missteps we could have made. Committing to what matters to you is not about locking yourself into a routine that doesn’t mesh with your values and priorities. Check-in with yourself frequently, stay flexible, and practice patience with yourself. Experiment, design, and adopt new habits and strategies—and find what works for you.