Hours and hours

In a NYT Op-Ed, Workweek Woes, John De Graaf wonders why Americans work so much and vacation so little. Lawyers are notoriously bad for working excessive hours.

According to the International Labor Organization, Americans now work 1,978 hours annually, a full 350 hours — nine weeks — more than Western Europeans.

In contrast, associates at NY Biglaw firms generally have to bill 2,000 hours per year. To bill 2,000 hours, one must work significantly more hours than that number. To compensate for taking so much time, the starting salaries are impressive.
I wonder why firms don’t higher more associates, working shorter hours at less extravagant salaries. I see a few possible reasons for why associates work such long hours

  1. The nature of the work
    Writing motions and briefs, poring over documents in discovery and doing legal research are all time-consuming tasks that are difficult to divide. Throwing more associates at the work wouldn’t affect how long each lawyer would have to work on each assignment
  2. The nature of the workers
    The people who end up as Biglaw associates are all Type A go-getters. They are going to work above and beyond what’s necessary no matter what, and wouldn’t consider working shorter hours.

Under either theory, the firms save money on office space and benefits. Having more bodies would make it more difficult to avoid layoffs during leaner times. Hiring more associates would mean even fewer will ever make partner.

By contrast, over the past 30 years, Europeans have made a different choice — to live simpler, more balanced lives and work fewer hours. The average Norwegian, for instance, works 29 percent less than the average American — 14 weeks per year — yet his average income is only 16 percent less. Western Europeans average five to six weeks of paid vacation a year; we average two.

I wonder if the associates and firms would have better productivity, efficiency, quality of work and quality of life by adopting less strenuous schedules…

3 Comments

  1. Andrew,
    Aren’t those countries that work less than us do worse than us on all indicators of economic growth/productivity?
    On the issue of work weeks, there was a recent article in the NYTimes on the matter; apparently they keep increasing the amount of time workers can take off annually, and, shockingly, workers keep increasing the amount of time they are away.
    I suppose it’s a matter of what a society values; perhaps Americans like winning and Europeans like welfare.
    Also, Mississippi is richer than Sweden.
    Any advice on Brooklyn Law? I’m headed there this fall.

  2. On a straight comparison of per capita GDP, sure, the European countries may all be doing “worse” than us, but what about a comparison of per capita GDP when balanced against hours worked per year. The figures cited in this article suggest that we get far less marginal utility from the extra time we work here in the US. The European economies may be working at a more efficient equilibrium than the US economy.
    Is it really winning to devote 29% more time to work for only 16% more income? Which is more important to quality of life: more money or more time? With the choice between 16% more money or 29% more time working for someone else, I’ll take the 29% more time. I fail to see how workers taking more time away from work is a bad thing. As worker productivity increases, the economy can grow while workers can have more free time, which could spill over into growth in other industries (travel/tourism, restaurants, etc.)
    Comparing “winning” to “welfare” seems odd. If life is merely a competition to acquire the most stuff, then perhaps we’re winning. If life is about enjoying life, is having more money but less time to enjoy activities outside of work an improvement?

  3. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s the saying, but it doesn’t say anything about happiness, or personal fulfillment. I’ve seen plenty of examples of people who have worked hard to succeed at their occupation, yet have absolutely no joy in life because all their time is devoted to their work. The important thing is to find a balance which works for you. I suppose many people who work excessive hours at large law firms (or investment banks for that matter) don’t mind their workload due to their personalities. It’s a good balance for them. Me, I prefer to see daylight.
    Mississippi may be richer than Sweden, but which one would you rather live in?

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