40 hour workweek is a non-starter

Every once in a while a blog post drops that stirs up the hornets nest.  After more than 100 comments in a few days, the ABA Journal online article entitled, “Why Lawyers Should Work No More than 40 Hours a Week” has really stirred up some strong sentiment.  The article laid out a simple premise in less than 300 words.  The bottom line is this: studies have shown that workers (lawyers included) are most productive and creative when working within the 40 hour work week.  After 40 hours, the quality of work declines.

Makes sense right?  Your best work is when you are fresh, not when you are pounding Red Bull and trying to keep your eyes open, right?  Do these findings really seem that controversial? They certainly strike a chord. I think partly because we are powerless to stop it. Here are 3 reasons the 80-hour workweek isn’t going anywhere.

1. Lawyers are rarely in control of their deadlines

The most busy lawyers knows what it’s like to have an all-consuming deal or court case to handle.  When a large merger needs to be closed, there is no asking for an extra month so that extra staff can be hired and the 40-hour workweek can be strictly enforced.  When an unmerciful judge lays down an impossible deadline, there is no complaining to a higher judge.  There are times when lawyers need to get it done.  These are the rules of the game- and the lawyers that are putting their clients first aren’t complaining about it.

2. Law firms can’t justify hiring more attorneys for smaller weekly increments

The law firms have no incentive to have their lawyers work smarter in 40-hour weekly increments. The billable model discourages it in fact. If two lawyers each work 40 hours per week then the firm has to pay for office space, health insurance, secretary and benefits for each of them. In addition, the cost of training a partner lever attorney are substantial.  If they account for the turnover, it isn’t a simple matter of doubling the workforce and reducing the hours of each individual. The 40-hour workweek just isn’t very practical for firms.

All of this has to play into the calculations made by firms. Even taking into account the drop-off in productivity after 40 hours the law firms still come out ahead having fewer lawyers working longer hours.

3. Ambitious lawyers want to work the 80-hour workweeks.

I don’t think the discussion is properly framed as talking about greed alone, nor does it do it justice to speak of busy lawyers as “doing what they have to do.”  It is really an issue of priorities.    Lawyers have a choice, and many of them choose to be workaholics. I use the word “workaholics” not to be funny, but because I believe it to be a true addiction.

I grew up with a father that was (and still is) a workaholic.  His always had different excuses for coming home late from the hospital, but when it came down to it- he loved what he did. He loved the 12-hour operations, loved taking care of his patients and didn’t mind sacrifice other parts of his life to be a great surgeon. It was his choice and many lawyers have made a similar choice.


There is something else buried deep inside the more-than 100 comments on this ABA Journal article, and that is a tinge of jealousy. Many lawyers are barely hanging on right now- working a few hours here and there just to hang on. Perhaps they wonder, how are other attorneys finding 80 hours of work per week, yet I can only find a couple dozen? Unfortunately the business world is unfair that way sometimes, the work can’t be fairly distributed across all licensed lawyers- that just isn’t how capitalism works.

Not all great lawyers want to give up their lives for the practice of law though. I have observed a trend among some law firms to allow attorneys to elect to take on a substantially lower billable hour requirement. It stretches out the partner track, but many attorneys are ok with that. Hopefully this trend at least catches on, because I don’t expect to start seeing a strictly enforced 40-hour workweek in biglaw firms anytime soon.

Adrian Dayton is a lawyer and author of the book Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition. Click here to sign up for his FREE business development conference calls.


5 Responses to “40 hour workweek is a non-starter”

  1. Adrian, good for you for popping that wishful thinking bubble. There are some jobs where 40 hour work weeks just don’t happen, lawyer, doctor, entrepreneur–to name a few. If a working 40 hours is a goal, one has to be ready to go through years of 60-80 hour weeks to get to that point. Or, just start with a that maintains that schedule. These are values that should be thought out before one sends in graduate school applications.

  2. Carol,

    Thanks for the comment. I love what I do and I’m not sure I could have the same passion doing it only 25 hours per week. I think it is so important to have a passion for what you do- and your passion will often require working long hours.

  3. Midway through law school I read The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris. Now I can’t stand the thought of even a 40 hour workweek.

    Don’t read this book if u want to be an attorney.

  4. Dustin,

    Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I enjoyed the 4-hour-work week but personally I can’t imagine being very fulfilled working only a few hours per week. 40 is plenty sometimes unless of course things get busy.

    Any tips to help people find time to work out?


Check out what others are saying about this post...

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Adrian T Dayton, Adrian T Dayton, Adrian T Dayton, Amy Keach, Jesús Marín and others. Jesús Marín said: Must read RT @adriandayton: Did you read, "Why lawyers should work no more than 40 hours a week?" Here is my response http://bit.ly/96EtWE […]

Leave a Reply