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Lawyers Can’t Work Less Without Someone Picking Up the Slack

Nov. 24, 2021, 10:30 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. This week, we look at how one law firm is taking mundane work off of lawyers’ plates amid a surge in demand for legal work. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox most Thursday mornings.

After a long day of work this spring, Barnes & Thornburg partner Meena Sinfelt found herself at 11 p.m. working with a paralegal to schedule interviews. The Washington-based white-collar litigator was juggling three investigations at once, and her to-do list was morphing into a never-ending pile of Post-It notes.

“Any lawyer will feel like they’re just losing constantly if work keeps getting piled on and they’re not making progress,” Sinfelt said. “And that affects everything.”

Sinfelt is far from alone.

Big Law has been running hot for more than 18 months, piling stress on even the most hardened lawyers used to billing hours deep into the night.

One benefit is lawyers are making more money. Associates can expect year-end bonuses at least 15% higher than last year’s record-setting sums. Profits split among partners are likely to rise by more than that.

But law firms could do more to take administrative work off of lawyers’ plates. When partners have too many hours to bill, it’s sensible to invest in resources that eliminate their non-billable work. A program at Barnes & Thornburg that is saving Sinfelt from midnight busy work serves as an example.

I said in April that more money won’t on its own curtail the risk of burnout—which therapists told me occurs when hard-working lawyers feel there is no end to their work. We’ve been exploring how the Big Law pyramid could be reshaped in response to the demand shock the industry is seeing.

In some ways, the toughest question is: Will Big Law partners accept the costs associated with more lawyers working fewer hours? It bucks against the traditional profit engine driving law firms: Leverage.

Partners might ask a follow-up question: Just how many fewer hours do lawyers want to work?

The answer, it turns out, is not that much less!

A survey of nearly 1,200 lawyers released by Thomson Reuters this week said 30% of lawyers would prefer to work fewer hours. Half of the lawyers said they were comfortable with the amount of hours they were working. The average desired workload represents 50 fewer hours per year—a request that equates to about one hour a week.

Only 2% of lawyers said they are happy with their non-billable requirements. It’s the type of work that makes high-performers feel like they are wasting time and not accomplishing their goals. Again, the lawyers aren’t asking to throw everything off their plate. They wanted, on average, to do about two less non-billable tasks.

Barnes & Thornburg’s Sinfelt expressed a similar sentiment that late night scheduling interviews in the Spring.

“There has to be a better way to do this,” she said. “My work-life balance was just totally out of whack.”

After telling a senior partner that there had to be a more efficient way to practice, she got in touch with Jared Applegate, the firm’s chief legal operations officer. Applegate in 2019 co-founded a suite of pricing, process, and technology solutions the firm calls BT ValueWorks.

That group has grown to include 11 employees, including pricing professionals, legal technology and innovation experts, and two more legal project managers hired this month. In 2020, 88% of the firm’s partnership engaged the program for client projects. Applegate said the long-term goal is to take tasks like billing audits, vetting technologies, and project management away from lawyers.

“It’s to work in place of attorneys who get stuck doing project management capabilities on large engagements,” Applegate said. “We’re having these individuals work on the largest engagements and helping the attorneys there get better work-life balance.”

Sinfelt now works with legal project managers who help carry out the administrative burden of running complex investigations. The project managers develop checklists for matters that ensure lawyers don’t forget tasks like wiping data off the firm’s system after a matter concludes, Sinfelt said. She said it’s been a welcome reprieve from a workload that hasn’t let up in years.

“It’s weighing on a lot of us and we’re looking for creative solutions to keep working on a productive pace more efficiently,” she said.

Law firms were quick to cut staff during the pandemic. It’s unclear if staffing levels recovered across the industry, but Sinfelt’s example shows bringing in new types of professionals could be a welcome effort.

Worth Your Time

On Associate Bonuses: Ruiqi Chen reported Cravath kicked off the year-end bonus season and Cleary Gottlieb has already matched the Cravath scale.

On Ethics Charges: Melissa Heelan reports discipline rates for lawyers have fallen in some key states, including California, where discipline rates fell from 4 per 1,000 lawyers in 2011 to 1.4 last year.

On Vaccine Mandates: Ruiqi also reported that Sullivan & Cromwell and Baker Donelson could be forced to implement vaccine mandates to comply with rules for federal contractors.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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