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November 03, 2021 Well-Being

Cap billable hours for lawyer well-being, state bar report says; survey found this group is least satisfied

By Debra Cassens Weiss
Law firms should promote lawyer well-being by capping billable hours, encouraging full vacations and managing client expectations, a new report says.

Law firms should promote lawyer well-being by capping billable hours, encouraging full vacations and managing client expectations, a new report says.

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Law firms should promote lawyer well-being by capping billable hours, encouraging full vacations and managing client expectations, according to a report released Monday by the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being.

According to the report, law firms should cap billable hours at 1,800 per year and should not exceed the cap when determining bonus eligibility.

The state bar surveyed New York lawyers about well-being issues in October 2020 and received 3,089 responses. The lawyers rated their overall satisfaction with law practice a 3.42 on a scale of 1 to 5, according to the report.

One lawyer responding to the survey noted the tension between making the billable-hour quota and taking needed time off: “If I take a week off for vacation, that’s 40 hours I have to cram into the year somewhere else,” the lawyer said.

Nearly 37% of the lawyers indicated that they had a mental-health-related problem or concern in the last three years. About 17% indicated that, since the COVID-19 pandemic, they had consumed more alcohol or drugs than they had intended or thought that they should cut back or quit. Another 4% said they were not sure whether their substance use was a problem.

The survey asked about the problems having the greatest impact on well-being. The top three answers were lack of boundaries, no down time and “never off;” client expectations and demands; and financial pressures in the business of law.

“An overarching theme was time off,” the report said of the survey results. “Many people requested work-life balance, increased vacation time, sick time or mental health days. Many of those requesting such things noted that they need to feel that the time off will truly be ‘off,’ meaning no expectations regarding calls or emails. Several people indicated that having backup support, so they do not come back to an overwhelming workload, is important.”

Lawyers with 101 to 200 lawyers were particularly troubled by a lack of down time. Seventy-three percent of those lawyers chose lack of down time as the top problem affecting their well-being, more than solos or lawyers in other size practices.

Lawyers with 101 to 200 lawyers in their offices were also the least satisfied among law firm lawyers. Lawyers with 21 to 50 years in their practices were most satisfied. Among practice types, judges were the most satisfied. Broken down by length of practice, lawyers practicing at least 21 years were most satisfied.

When lawyers were allowed to give a free-text response to impacts to well-being, instead of given choices, their most common answer was the judiciary. When asked what the judiciary could do to reduce stress, the most common answer (chosen by about 67%) was to continue certain video appearances even after the pandemic ends.

Asked how the state bar could help, lawyers most often listed these suggestions: The bar should offer discounts on gyms and exercise equipment, should advocate for cultural change, and should help with free or low-cost counseling.

Cultural change meant different things to different people, however. Many lawyers said the NYSBA should advocate for 40-hour workweeks and flexible business practices. Other said the NYSBA should engage in anti-racism work, help close the gender gap, and build understanding for lawyers with learning disabilities.

The report was titled This Is Us: From Striving Alone to Thriving Together.

Bloomberg Law spoke with task force co-chair Libby Coreno, general counsel to Bonacio Construction in Saratoga Springs, New York. She said the pandemic has pushed lawyers to talk about work-related stress.

“We have a vulnerability issue and an armor issue,” Coreno told Bloomberg Law. “COVID has ripped the lid off and allowed us to talk about these things.”

She said the task force opted for the 1,800 billable-hours cap after several lawyers reported their firms topped out at 2,200 hours.

“The collective belief was that [1,800 hours] was actually a sustainable number,” she said.

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