How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work?
Embarking on a career in law? Brace yourself for a high-stakes rollercoaster unlike any other. The legal field doesn't just demand a sharp, agile mind that can navigate through expansive abstractions and intricate details; it calls for superhuman stamina to endure workloads that laugh in the face of a 40-hour week. Confirming this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a telling trend: lawyers are no strangers to the late-night oil-burning ritual, regularly clocking in 45-55 hours a week at small or mid-sized firms, and as many as 80 hours a week at bigger firms.
But what does this mean for you, the budding lawyer? We’re here to pull back the curtain and peer into the reality of a lawyer's day-to-day. Here's the inside scoop on the factors that crank up those hours, the surprising ways they fluctuate across specialties, and the real-world fallout of this professional marathon. Through this lens, we’ll offer you a clear-eyed view of what to expect and how to steel yourself for the demanding journey ahead.
Why Do Lawyers Work Long Hours?
To better understand how much lawyers work, it helps to start by cataloging some of what goes into the job. Within a standard week, a lawyer's agenda could unravel as follows:
- Appear in court to represent clients
- Dive into precedent and case law surrounding a particular legal question
- Engage in extensive communication, which includes clients and other lawyers, and with relevant parties like insurance companies
- File documents such as appeals and deeds
- Run the business facets of the firm
All of this takes time, and that time adds up quickly, so it’s no surprise that lawyers put in overtime on a regular basis.
It is also important to take into account the area of specialization that a lawyer chooses. Certain types of lawyers, like criminal attorneys, simply have to be available most (or all) of the time. Divorce lawyers, by contrast, might work a lot, but they’re less likely to need to have their phones on 24/7.
Does Practice Area and Firm Size Impact Working Hours?
One of the main factors determining how much lawyers work is the area in which their practice is located. This is true for many professions – you’d probably imagine that an accountant in New York City would work more than an accountant in Nameless, Texas (yes, it’s a real place), and the same is often true for lawyers.
A law firm's reputation also determines the number of hours its lawyers work each day. If you’re at a firm that’s routinely getting national news coverage you can expect that your hourly rate will be (sometimes hundreds of dollars) higher, but that also brings with it the added expectation that you’ll be getting home pretty late.
Finally, firm size impacts a lawyer’s hours. Depending on the specifics of the particular firm, this could mean that a lawyer is working more hours or fewer hours than is typical. A perpetually understaffed clinic offering free legal counsel, for example, might involve very long days, while a solo firm in a sleepy small town might only require a relatively laid-back 40 hours per week. But by and large, the data indicates that bigger firms mean longer hours.
What Are Some Issues with Long Working Hours for Lawyers?
Stepping into a lawyer's shoes is a balancing act, especially with the hefty work hours tipping the scales. Sure, the paycheck can be a dazzler compared to other gigs, but clocking in all that extra time isn't just fun and games. Yes, there's a shiny side, but the long hours come with their own set of drawbacks that beg a good, hard think.
In the next few sections, we’ll talk about some of these downsides, and offer advice on how to ameliorate them.
The most obvious problem with shouldering such a heavy burden is the ever-present danger of burnout. Lawyer burnout occurs when a person feels chronic exhaustion, cynicism, inefficacy, or a sense of being unimportant. People often use burnout to describe many stressors, but it is not synonymous with general stress. There is a continuum of stress, with thriving on one end and burnout on the other. There are other stress-related emotions as well, including frustration, exhaustion, overextension, and languishing.
Burnout comes with many negative consequences, including strained personal relationships, declining health, a sense of hopelessness, and the need to rely on stimulants like caffeine or nicotine to make it through the day.
Navigating the legal profession doesn't just challenge the intellect; it's an emotional high-wire act. Lawyers face extremely high stakes. The sharpness of a defense attorney can be the key to preventing an innocent person from facing a life sentence. A civil lawyer's diligence might shield a family from unjust eviction. These professionals don't just handle cases; they hold people's futures in their hands, creating stress that is often immense and deeply personal.
This intense pressure doesn't just require legal expertise but also demands a strong psychological constitution. Lawyers are constantly in the midst of human dramas, making critical decisions that change lives. In this high-stakes arena, they must maintain both their intellectual rigor and emotional stability. This challenging duality highlights the urgent need for comprehensive mental health support within the legal field. Perhaps this is why a 2016 study that examined 13,000 lawyers found that almost 30% battled depression, 19% had experienced some form of anxiety, and a little 20% had issues with excessive alcohol consumption.
If you find yourself struggling with any of these issues, there are mental health resources targeted specifically at lawyers. There are lawyer assistance programs all over the country that can offer guidance and help, and the lawyer depression project lists both resources and a crisis lifeline you can call.
How to Achieve Work-Life Balance as a Lawyer
While the portrayal of mental health challenges within the legal profession can cast a shadow, it's far from a hopeless abyss. The truth is, the journey to and through a legal career is lined with compelling motivations that drive individuals to embrace this path despite its rigors. Passion for justice, intellectual curiosity, and the desire to make tangible changes in society are just a few of the sparks that ignite a legal career. Indeed, the field's demands are high, but they do not overshadow its fulfillment and sense of purpose.
In the remaining sections, we’ll present a number of such strategies to prevent burnout, in the hopes that you’ll find your job as a lawyer as rewarding and stress-free as possible.
Make time for Social Interactions
No matter how many hours a week you work as a lawyer, it’s important to make time to see friends and family socially. This serves a dual purpose.
On the one hand, it’ll help to counteract the strain on your social relationships we mentioned earlier. As a result of their long working hours, lawyers often overlook their personal relationships. This can lead to those connections fraying over time, increasing a lawyer’s sense of isolation and loneliness. By scheduling time to be present with the important people in your life, you can help make sure your relationships persist.
On the other hand, social interactions are good for a lawyer’s mental health all on their own. Even if you’re just grabbing lunch with a few office friends, finding some time to decompress socially will help you with the inevitable trials and tribulations that come with being a lawyer.
Get Enough Sleep
In this day and age, exhortations to get more sleep have become commonplace, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Sleep is a crucial part of mental and physical health, vital not only to baseline functioning but also to bringing your very best to a demanding job every day.
You should do everything in your power to get 7-8 hours of sleep any time you can. You may cherish the time you spend unwinding by watching TV or reading, but those activities shouldn’t get in the way of proper sleep.
This isn't a deep dive into sleep tips, but one key advice is sticking to a bedtime routine. It's helpful to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day. Also, switch off all electronic screens, including your phone, about an hour before bed. This habit helps your brain understand it's time to wind down, making it easier to fall asleep. Simple activities like reading or quiet thinking instead of screen time can prepare you for a better night's rest, especially important for busy professionals like lawyers.
Plan and Manage Your Time Better
In the same vein, it’s also good to think strategically about how you use your time. The law is a hectic profession and it may not always be possible to plan work or meetings in advance, but the chances are good there’s more you can do to take control of your schedule.
You might also think about being more proactive with delegating and outsourcing work. The world is filled with talented copywriters, accountants, marketers, and assistants, and if you can afford it, you should use them. Focus on what you’re best at and leave the rest to better-qualified professionals.
A lot of this is easier when using technology, and we’ll cover that in the next section.
There’s no denying that the world has become much more reliant on technology, and this has driven changes in the legal profession as well.
But even if you’re not yet ready to start making law-themed videos on TikTok, there’s a lot you can do with technology to make your life easier and your workday more productive.
Take legal case management software, like MyCase, for example. It features robust tools for scheduling meetings, automating huge amounts of your workflow, managing client relationships, and even setting up your website.
If your firm doesn’t quite need a comprehensive case management platform, LawPay’s simple billing and invoicing software helps streamline the process of tracking your hours and getting paid for them. On its own, this won’t solve all your problems. But when paired with lifestyle modifications such as those described above, it can go a long way toward helping you get more of your time back and manage the pressure of your work in a healthy way.
Cultivating a Healthier Relationship with Your Work
The legal profession has a well-deserved reputation for demanding a lot from those who practice it. This can negatively impact a lawyer’s mental health and their relationships, leading to depression, substance abuse issues, and burnout.
But there are many techniques a lawyer can use to take more control of their life and their time. Just getting better sleep and carving out time for friends and family can help tremendously.
And then, there are technological solutions. Good legal software can lift much of the day-to-day burden of running a legal practice. To optimize your firm’s billing and payment processes, book a LawPay demo. Interested in comprehensive case management instead? Sign up for a 10-day free trial today.