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ANALYSIS: More Quiet Quitting, Less Hustling Next Year in Legal

Nov. 14, 2022, 2:00 AM

The legal profession is notorious for glorifying “the grind” and for promoting overachieving. But there are signs that attorneys may be reaching a breaking point, and we can expect to see more lawyers “quietly quitting” in the year to come.

“Quiet quitting”—which refers to employees disengaging from overachieving at work and instead doing just what they need to and nothing more—has become a viral topic in 2022. The legal industry initially appeared to have been immune from this phenomenon, but it appears that years of 50-plus hour workweeks, as well as the stresses of the past three years, have taken their toll. An analysis of Bloomberg Law survey data indicates that the profession is ripe for change, and that in the next year, we’ll likely see attorneys working less and engaging in more self-care.

No More 50-Hour Workweeks?

For nearly two years, Bloomberg Law has been collecting data via its Attorney Workload and Hours surveys to gauge hours worked, work-related experiences, and the overall well-being of attorneys. In 2022, the survey switched from quarterly fielding to semi-annual, changing some more subjective questions—including overall well-being and work-related issues—to a six-month reflection period for respondents. However, each variation of the survey has consistently asked respondents to report their average weekly hours worked for each quarter.

Since Q1 2021, there’s been a trend of in-house and law firm attorneys reporting working fewer hours per week—from an average of 53.5 hours per week in Q1 2021, to an average of 48.9 hours per week in Q2 2022, according to the surveys. In fact, Q1 2022 is the first time since the initial fielding of the survey that attorneys have reported working an average of fewer than 50 hours per week.

Although this 4.6 hours-per-week decrease may raise concerns for the C-suite, the change should be a welcome one. Just because attorneys are spending less time working each week doesn’t mean that they’re being less productive, and the reverse might be true.

There are consequences associated with overworking, including decreased productivity. And in a profession that has one of the highest rates of substance abuse and burnout, industry leaders need to finally recognize the impact that prioritizing punching the clock over self-care and well-being has on their attorneys. Encouraging attorneys to reclaim their personal time in 2023 is a step in the right direction—and here’s why.

More Hours, More Problems

The more attorneys work, the greater the likelihood is that they’ll experience work-related stressors or worsened well-being.

The most recent survey asked attorneys about the work-related issues they experienced over the first six months of this year. Attorneys could select from a variety of negative work-related issues, including anxiety, depression, and increased substance use. There was also the opportunity to opt out, select none, or write in an answer.

These negative experiences have a statistically significant relationship with the reported average hours worked per week: As the hours that attorneys worked per week increased, so did the likelihood that the attorneys reported experiencing at least one of the adverse work-related issues.

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Attorneys who selected “None of these” issues (less than 20% of overall respondents for each survey) reported working between 5.0 and 10.4 fewer hours per week than their colleagues who had at least one work-related issue. Notably, attorneys with no work-induced issues reported working no more than an average of 48.4 hours per week in the last six quarters. In contrast, those who identified with at least one issue have averaged working over 50 hours a week for five out of the last six quarters.

The workload and hours surveys also asked attorneys to report how their overall well-being has changed since the last survey period, ranging from significantly improved to significantly worsened.

Much like work-induced issues, overall well-being was found to have a statistically significant relationship with average hours worked per week by attorneys. As hours worked per week increased, so did the likelihood that attorneys reported that their well-being had worsened—either slightly or significantly.

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Attorneys who reported that their overall well-being had either improved or stayed the same made up a majority of the respondents in each survey (between 52% and 70% of respondents), and averaged between 4 and 8.9 fewer hours per week than their colleagues who reported worsened well-being. In the last six quarters, attorneys who reported a decline in well-being reported working, on average, 51 or more hours per week.

Less Talk, More Action

The data don’t suggest that attorneys should never work over 50 hours a week, but they do highlight the significant relationship between the hours attorneys spend working, their well-being, and the concerns that impact their mental health.

Discussions surrounding attorney mental health and well-being are happening, but with little to no improvements in these areas, it’s clear that legal industry leaders haven’t been listening—or aren’t willing to take the necessary steps to address the root of the issues. And Bloomberg Law data show that attorneys may be realizing that it’s on them to break the toxic patterns in the profession by dialing back—or quitting quietly.

Substantive action by legal industry leaders next year to improve working conditions for attorneys is unlikely—especially with economic uncertainty and talks of a recession looming—which means it’s likely that in 2023, attorneys will continue to self-regulate by clocking fewer hours each week.

Access additional analyses from our Bloomberg Law 2023 series here, covering trends in Litigation, Transactional, ESG & Employment, Technology, and the Future of the Legal Industry.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, and In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being resources.

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