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ANALYSIS: Lawyers Struggle to Disconnect, But Employers Can Help

March 25, 2021, 11:54 AM

For lawyers, long workdays are the rule, not the exception. But when the days are over and the hours are billed, can lawyers ever really leave work at work?

Despite the pandemic and the personal responsibilities and distractions that come with it, many lawyers still find it difficult to step away from work when the day is done. Organizations can help by adopting policies and practices that encourage putting down the phone, stepping away from the computer, and enjoying some time to disconnect.

The (Seemingly) Never-Ending Workday

Nearly three-quarters of the 1,554 lawyers responding to Bloomberg Law’s Workload and Hours Survey say they have faced challenges disconnecting from work during the pandemic. This is understandable, considering how many lawyers are working from home, which can lead to extended hours and an indistinct boundary between when work ends and personal time begins.

Lawyers may also be reluctant to disconnect from work for any period of time due to travel safety concerns, or because they perhaps feel chained to their professional obligations. This behavior erodes work-life balance and provides for continuous long days without much reprieve.

New Challenges, Fewer Boundaries

Other challenges may contribute to lawyers’ inability to disconnect. Since the pandemic began, many lawyers say, they have faced challenges such as difficulty focusing on work tasks, heavier workloads, financial instability, and job instability. Any single one of these stressors could result in an environment where lawyers do not feel comfortable disconnecting from work for any meaningful amount of time.

A lawyer who has more work to do or has trouble focusing on their current workload will naturally work more, keeping them connected for longer each day. Moreover, if a lawyer fears their job or financial situation is insecure, they may feel the need to be responsive around the clock to preserve whatever job security that they do have in this legal environment. These factors can result in a situation where lawyers feel they must always be available.

‘Unplug Time’ at Orrick

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP recently implemented an “Unplug Time” policy, which represents a step that can be taken to improve employees’ well-being and help to prevent burnout.

I spoke to Orrick about the new policy, which offers partners, counsel, associates, and staff a true week off work with the expectation that those who partake will unplug and enjoy a week without email, zoom, or calls.

Notably, the 40 hours taken under this policy will be creditable time for team members who have timekeeping requirements and can be taken as a block or broken up. Teams will work together to ensure administrative coverage.

Simple Solutions Can Help

Law firms and corporations can take small steps to address concerns that leave the lawyers they employ unable to disconnect from work.

Simple things can make a big impact. Here are some things management can do to help.

Engage in model behaviors that lawyers can emulate, such as taking time off to promote the idea that lawyers are free to do so as well.

Consider counting time off toward billable hour requirements, which will encourage lawyers to take a guilt-free break from their jobs.

Encourage lawyers to disconnect after hours by sending only time-sensitive emails after work and scheduling all nonessential communications to go out in the morning.

Be more transparent about the organization’s financial standing, allowing lawyers to make realistic assessments of their job security.

Remind lawyers that they are valued by the organization.

Provide special bonuses from time to time.

It is unlikely that the problem of failing to disconnect will ever disappear altogether, but using techniques such as these, employers can alleviate some of the stressors that fuel lawyers to remain constantly connected.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page, In Focus: Legal Operations page, and In Focus: Lawyer Development page.

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