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 day".

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 all."

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 matter.

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 multi-faceted approach.

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 contribution.

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 its stamina.

Originally published in Lexpert, March 2015

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