The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being has made some bold recommendations for dealing with lawyers’ mental health issues. High on the list are capping billable hours, encouraging full vacations, and managing client expectation. Now, some of those are doable — hell, Orrick’s already doing its part to make sure everyone there is taking a vacation. But stopping attorneys from billing more than 1,800 hours, when that is the dominant way that Biglaw makes its money? That seems like an awfully big ask.
The recommendations come after an October 2020 survey by the state bar of New York lawyers about well-being issues. And billable hours played a big role in the burnout and stress experienced by attorneys, as one respondent noted, “If I take a week off for vacation, that’s 40 hours I have to cram into the year somewhere else.” That sense of never being off was a big problem for folks:
“An overarching theme was time off. Many people requested work-life balance, increased vacation time, sick time or mental health days. Many of those requesting such things noted that they need to feel that the time off will truly be ‘off,’ meaning no expectations regarding calls or emails. Several people indicated that having backup support, so they do not come back to an overwhelming workload, is important.”
This problem was particularly pronounced at bigger firms — a whopping 73 percent of those with 101-200 attorney in their office reported the lack of downtime was an issue.
This is a cultural issue in the legal industry that must be addressed from the top down. Because we have firms basing the trajectory of an associate’s career — everything from bonuses, to assignments, to promotions — on the number of hours they bill. As the report notes, “Unfortunately for lawyers, the actions for which they reap the highest rewards over the course of their careers can frequently cross the line into unhealthy behaviors.”
Hopefully the rupture in “business as usual” caused by the pandemic provides an opportunity to make some lasting changes. The mental health of the profession depends on it.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).