The December 20th, 2014 issue of The Economist featured a
thoughtful article on "Why is Everyone So Busy?" Yet the
article was frustrating because it did not offer solutions as such.
I expect that work/life balance choices will be less frequent than
ever, especially for those who choose to practice law in-house and
in law firms. There is no real choice.
"Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more
about wasting, saving or using them profitably." University of
Toronto researchers found those who are paid by the hour tend to
feel more "antsy" when they are not working. While
lawyers are not paid by the hour, they bill by the hour and total
billings affect compensation. The hourly billing culture certainly
affects how in-house counsel think of their own time
value—most have spent a few years in private practice.
Lawyers are well paid compared to professionals and managers in
other industries. Research conducted 50 years ago found that
"when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer
hours." Aside from 3-years during the most recent recession,
hourly rates and compensation for lawyers in private practice have
continued to rise.
Over the last 18 months, I have spent 60% of my time working for
US-based clients, their law departments and their law firms. I
observed significant differences in working hours and in time
management practices when compare to Canadian law departments. But
I also detected important variations in work volumes and habits
within the US - from Seattle to Nashville to mid-town Manhattan. A
Harvard Business School survey of 1,000 professionals found that
94% worked at least 50 hours per week, and that almost half worked
more than 65 hours. The Economist noted that "60% of those who
use smartphones are connected to work for 13.5 or more hours per
The overall number of hours worked is higher in the US than in
Canada. Vacation entitlement and statutory holidays are greater in
Canada, although not on par with many countries in Western Europe.
The Glass Door Consultancy reported that the average US employee
(referring to a professional or manager) "takes only half of
what is allocated, and 15% don't take any holidays at
We have conducted at least 15 studies on workloads and workflows
for law departments over the last decade. The data is useful and
shows that the length of the work week has indeed increased by 10%
during this period. However, the real story emerges in the
interviews with in-house counsel and their clients. Work-related
stress is driven by work flows and not workloads. Most law
departments have no formal protocols stating when to call on the
law department, and sorting out who can and should call. Access is
unrestricted and available 24/7. Responses are expected within one
business day or less, regardless of the significance of the
An analysis of the type of work, its complexity and the source
of the requests shows that many departments will dedicate 80% of
their resources to 20% of their clients. The remaining 80% of
clients can become much more self-sufficient with increased
training, standard form documentation and more explicit protocols
for access to the law department. Productivity gains approaching
10% can be achieved for most law departments using this
Further analyses of the work done for a law department's
core clients reveal that 40% of this work is still routine and
typically takes less than 5 hours per matter to complete. The
average is 1.5 hours per matter. Another 30% of the work for core
clients it can be completed in less than 2.5 hours per matter.
Otherwise put, one is hard-pressed to find a law department with
more than 30% of its resources allocated to complex - read
"partner-equivalent"- work. That makes it very difficult
for a corporate law department to make a significant and strategic
General Counsel cannot hold back the tide of demand for services
from the law department. However, there are three things they must
do to improve the productivity and value of their limited
resources. First, they should have an accurate and current picture
of the demand for services. The type, complexity, frequency and
source of work should be detailed for each lawyer and paralegal.
Second, they should introduce client training and work intake
protocols designed to reduce the amount of routine work by 50% and
the number of occasional users by 75% with a view to generating 10%
more capacity in the law department. And third, the practice
management habits of each department member should be examined with
particular attention to an over-reliance on paper and to poor
e-mail management habits.
Only then can a law department ensure that is both efficient and
effective. The challenge is to increase its strategic impact not
Originally published in Lexpert, March 2015
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.
Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).