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
- 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
- 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…