How many working hours a week is too many? Where do we stop?

Without travelling east to west, 169.

One of the more read posts on this blog was something I wrote back in August 2016 – ‘Why asking someone to work 2,000 billable hours a year will kill their spirt‘ . I had reason to re-read this post early this week following the publication of a post on the asialawportal.com website by Matthew Kelly – ‘Work life balance across Asia – and how things are changing‘.

Matthew’s post follows on the back of an article published in Business Insider earlier this month that ‘South Korea is trying to stop overwork by limiting the maximum workweek to 52 hours‘. The gist of the BI article was that President Moon Jae had recently legislated that the maximum working hour week in South Korea had been reduced from 68 hours a week to 40 hour per week, but with the option to do any additional 12 hours per week ‘overtime’. All sorts of reason for why South Koreans work so hard were also mentioned, including that South Koreans need to work overtime to supplement their salaries (which, if true, is a rather sad reflection on the society).

Leveraging off of this, Matthew’s post argues that attitudes to long hours and presenteeism are generally shifting at law firms in Asia.

My View

On the one hand, I would agree with Matthew. Attitudes towards presenteeism are changes in Asia. Partners and senior managers at law firms are more tolerant of the agile approach to work-life balance. The days of sitting in the office as a junior lawyer and waiting till your partner had left do seem to be on the way out.

That said, with the reduction in the number of junior lawyers (relative to previously) working in private practice and the increased use of technology to be able to draft advices and contracts on the go has, in my view, led to an increased expectation around the number of billable hours lawyers are expected to work in the Region.

For some time now the number of billable hours required in order to qualify for law firm bonus pools has been on a slow upward trajectory. A little over a decade ago this sat – as an industry average – around the 1,400 hours a year mark and now it is probably closer to 1,800 (with US law firms being north of 2,000 hour per year).

While this increase in the overall number of hours required to be billed per annum may not seem massive, in day terms it really isn’t uncommon now to see junior lawyers today with billable target hours of around 7 to 8 hours per day.  And as Yale University has pointed out for a number of years now, asking someone to do 1 billable hour is a lot different to asking them to do 1 working hour (‘The Truth about the Billable Hour‘).

Once again though, you may ask why all this matters?

Well in the first instance, and probably most importantly, in a time when ‘wellbeing’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘agile’ are vogue in law firms, it would seem counter-intuitive to ask someone to work to a set number of billable hours per annum.

But in addition to this, asking someone to work to any set number of billable hours, even if that is one, assumes that ever dollar of revenue is equal. And we all know that’s not true. So it is actually a pointless target. But it is a pointless target that also causes serious mental health issues for lawyers. So it is actually cruel.

And for all those reasons it is time we moved on from billable hour targets and utilisation as reward/budget metrics and came to some consensus on a different metric by which we could reward private practice lawyers that actually inspired them to develop their skills, their practice and remain engaged in the profession,

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