Summary: Here are the top 5 ways you can let associates know that the work they are doing is important, that their well-being is important, and that their opinions matter.
The economy has clearly put a new twist on the problem of work-addicted attorneys in the law profession. In addition to trying to meet already high billable hour expectations, many associates, confronted with newspaper headlines informing us of lawyers at all levels being dismissed with little or no warning, are running scared and doing unnecessary work. And their firms' failure to communicate what is expected of associates is pushing new lawyers to work even longer and harder. This lack of communication increases associates' insecurities and leads to less efficient work habits. They constantly worry about their performance and often work a record-breaking number of hours to cover all contingencies. While clearly some projects do require huge time investments on short notice, employers should help young lawyers recognize the real crises and conserve energy for those times.
Unfortunately, a vested economic interest in keeping billable hour requirements high and long work hours the norm prevents many employers from giving serious attention to employees' workaholic habits. Firm culture dictates that time devoted to non-client matters should be used to discuss "real" economic issues like marketing strategies, rainmaking, and billable hours. In a profession where strategic planning is viewed as "sissy stuff", it is not surprising that managing partners fail to consider work-addicted attorneys a top priority. Firm leaders, however, should recognize that turning their backs on this problem will, in the long run, prove detrimental to the organization. In their adamant desire to concentrate their energies on "real'' economic issues rather than people concerns, they fail to see the relationship between the two. They remain unaware that without building a loyal team of lawyers, the economic issues will never be resolved.
Increasing malpractice insurance premiums, as well as the negative media coverage that results from the negligence of individual lawyers, is challenging members of the profession to bring their collective genius to bear on this problem. In these troubled economic times, firms are beginning to awaken to the fact that lawyers who are burned out cannot provide the necessary competitive edge. Consequently, in this era of skyrocketing business costs and increasing competition for clients, more firms are realizing that their ability to achieve financial goals is still closely tied to how they treat their legal staff.
Therefore, the burden of solving the work-addicted attorney's problem rests ultimately with employers. Firm managers can help change their environments so that attorneys are not forced into workaholic patterns.
1. BILLABLE HOUR SYSTEMS
"Minimum" and "required" billable hour expectations feed attorney workaholicism. The use of hourly billing rates, rather than a system based on the benefit obtained for a client, rewards inefficiency. While eliminating or modifying the billable hour system would certainly reduce attorney workaholicism, firm managers have not yet jumped on the bandwagon to implement alternative pricing schemes. Until recently, in fact, changes seemed unlikely. But now, with clients demanding more control and more accountability, variations in the billable hour scheme not only may reduce the need for outrageous work patterns but also may be critical for some firms' very survival. The time has come to change the focus from when the work is done and how long it takes to what is accomplished and how.
Since dramatic changes seem unlikely in the near future, what adjustments realistically can be made? A number of large firms are committed to maintaining a goal of 1,800 billable hours per lawyer, rather than the 2,000 plus required by other large firms. Other firms have developed work less/eat less options that allow associates to choose how much time they are willing to devote to law practice. Some firms set a ceiling on the number of billable hours required and may include mentoring, associate development, supervision, and recruiting in the billable hour count.
2. FIXED-TIME COMMITMENTS
Fixed-time commitments, which allow lawyers to limit their working hours, present another potential solution to attorney-workaholicism. Once attorneys complete a certain number of years with the firm and receive satisfactory reviews, offering a fixed time option could reward attorneys for their service to the firm.The option might be available only once during associate-ship. Alternatively, some firms are willing to allow lawyers to move back and forth between full-time and fixed time commitments on more than one occasion.
In addition to fixed time commitments, what many lawyers want is not shorter hours, but flexibility and the tools to work at home if and when the need arises. Telecommuting may be a more popular work option in the legal profession.
3. TIME BONUSES
Since time is such a precious commodity, why not help solve the work-addicted attorney's problem by paying associates with vacation time rather than dollars? More firms should use time bonuses as a routine reward for working excessive hours, for impressive results obtained, or perhaps once a year simply for a job well done. Such bonuses have the collateral benefit of acknowledging commitment and hard work. Recognition is an extremely powerful motivator!
In spite of today's economic pressures, the legal profession is experiencing changing demographics simultaneously with changing attitudes toward balancing family and work responsibilities. Law firms will be hard pressed to solve these issues as they struggle to survive current economic difficulties, but these concerns will continue; two-career families are a permanent part of American society.
4. FIRM MANAGEMENT
Involving associates in firm decisions is another method of reducing uncertainty. We all know of associates who first learned of their firm's merger plans through the media. Associates should be involved in major decisions regarding the organization's philosophy, long-range planning, new practice area development, and even how billing procedures might be improved. Firms are beginning to recognize the value in making attorneys feel connected in the workplace.
Not only does involvement in major committees give associates a sense of belonging to a community of professionals, but it may also provide a safe forum for expressing valuable insights that would otherwise be difficult to elicit.
5. FIRM RETREATS
Firms can also deal effectively with work-addicted attorneys by sponsoring a firm retreat for partners and associates. Such outings take many different forms, depending on the firm, its goals, and the time and financial commitment such an event entails. One New York firm sponsors an annual retreat with a local psychologist. With the assistance of this experienced group leader, firm members discuss issues of lifestyle, working hours, and stress. Another firm uses the retreat to discuss the results of its annual attitude survey. These retreats, whether designed to learn of associates' concerns or intended to allow lawyers a much-needed dose of "R & R," are ways for a firm to convey that it cares about its people.
What else are firms doing to conquer the work-addicted attorney's problem, to reduce the need to work amazingly long hours? How are firms letting associates know that the work they are doing is important, that their well-being is important, and that their opinions matter?
Some firms have daycare centers, while others either have a gym on the premises or subsidize employees' membership in independently operated fitness centers. Facilitating lawyers' abilities to attend to their whole selves communicates that the organization values multifaceted individuals who are more than mere "profit centers." It is time for law firms to take up this challenge.
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