Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Lawyers: Professionals or Profit Centres?

Billable hours—the bane of private practice lawyers’ lives.
When I was an associate, my firm had a billable hour target (1800 billable hours per year). We monitored our own hours from our timesheets, but the firm did not communicate our progress towards our target. We knew that the partners—obviously-- had access to information about our docketed hours and how much time was being written off (or bonused), but the firm’s philosophy, at least at that time, was that it was more important for us to learn than it was for us to be focused on maximizing our effective rates.
One day, a partner told me that I had out-billed the office services function (surcharges on photocopying, etc.) the previous month or year—I don’t remember the precise details—but I interpreted this to mean that I was adding value at some level, which was reassuring.
Firms have very different philosophies about communicating docketed hours for juniors and students. Some firms circulate a document to everyone in the firm that shows the hours recorded and billed for each associate and junior. Some firms include partners. Some firms circulate hours recorded versus hours actually billed and perhaps an effective rate. Some firms circulated them monthly, but some did so every week!
These records become known colloquially as racing sheets because they created a contest, perhaps a race, among all staff who bill their time, and both partners and partner “wanna-be”s could easily see who was bringing in the most money. And, let’s face it, whoever billed the most won the race. They were honest that billing was their focus, and everyone knew the rules of the game.
I was grateful that I hadn’t worked in that environment—it sounded like a pressure cooker to me. I think I would either have been completely intimidated and that I would have either run or would have become determined to docket more, bill more and collect more than anyone else. But hyper competitive me is not the best version of me and I am glad hyper competitive me was not called on anymore than absolutely necessary.
In the early years of my practice, I learned that my idealistic values about law being a profession and not a business were very naïve, and that there were business realities that came into play. To my surprise, it turned out that I had good business judgment and sense which my clients valued. But I liked to think of myself as a professional first and a businessperson second. And it turns out that this may have given me greater resilience.
Last week, I learned that how a lawyer perceives they are valued by their employer (for convenience although this term includes partnerships) is linked to their mental health. A newly released study led by Patrick Krill, a lawyer turned researcher, examines linkage between physical and mental health with what lawyers perceive that their employers value about them. And, not surprisingly, lawyers who feel that they are valued for their professionalism, skill and humanity are healthier, both physically and mentally, and more able to manage stress than lawyers who perceives their value as productivity and availability or who have no sense of being valued:
This study was published as “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values”—a great title but in line with what I expect from this research team, whose 2021 research was published as “Stress, Drink, Leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys.” To me, both “people, professionals, and profit centers” and “stress, drink, leave” are excellent summaries of well-being issues in law. This is my version of “you had me at hello!”

More than 1900 lawyers in California and Washington, DC, participated in the survey. Respondents were asked questions to determine what they believed their employers valued about them. This led to the creation of three populations: lawyers who believed their employers valued them for their professional skills and attributes, lawyers who believed their firms valued them for their financial contribution and availability, and lawyers who did not sense that their employers valued them at all.
Lawyers who feel valued for their professional skills and attributes had the best physical and mental health outcomes. Not surprisingly, lawyers who did not believe their employers valued them had the worst outcomes, and lawyers who believed they were valued for their billing and availability to work were in the middle.
So, what a legal employer values impacts lawyer well-being. Unfortunately, this study found that lawyers were in poor health overall, having poorer health outcomes than the general population This represents a status-health paradox, identified by a survey of Canadian lawyers since being at the higher end of the socio-economic continuum is generally associated with better health outcomes.
Interesting findings include:

  • Employers whose lawyers feel valued for financial and availability reasons, as opposed to their professional and character attributes, were less productive and had higher healthcare costs (which may relate to, in a Canadian context, health issues) than employees who feel valued for professional and character attributes.
  • The emphasis on productivity and availability may communicate that individual health is less important. When lawyers feel unwell, they continue to work but may be delivering lower quality work and being less efficient.
  • Lawyers who are stressed and who are experiencing decreased well-being may not perform at the same cognition level, resulting in more malpractice claims. In the words of the researchers, “these findings present meaningful economic risk for legal employers.”
  • Employers who emphasize productivity and availability may experience higher rates of attrition as well as poorer quality work products.
  • Employers who communicate that lawyers are valued for their skill and human attributes may see improved outcomes in lawyer well-being and lower rates of attrition.
  • Pre-pandemic research indicated that law firm attrition was about ten times higher than attrition at well-run corporations.
  • Almost 50% of lawyers who did not feel valued and 41% of lawyers who felt valued for their productivity and availability believed that their workplaces fostered, rewarded, or normalized maladaptive behaviours. Only 24% of lawyers who felt valued as professionals or individuals answered yes to this question.
  • Lawyers who worked in law firms were more likely to feel valued for their productivity and availability than for their professional and human attributes since law firms focus on productivity differently than corporations or government entities.
  • Lawyers working for corporations were more likely to feel valued for their professionalism and personal attributes while lawyers working for government entities were more likely to feel valued by their employer. But law firm lawyers—regardless of whether they feel valued for availability or do not sense that they are valued at all--had the worst physical and mental health outcomes
  • Firm size matters--lawyers working for large law firms had decreased probability of good health and increased probability of poor health relative to public sector and smaller firm lawyers. And the larger the firm, the more likely lawyers are to feel valued for their financial and productivity contributions.
  • More male lawyers indicated that compensation was the most important goal while more female lawyers indicated that work-life balance was their priority.
  • Workplace permissiveness about alcohol predicted risky drinking behaviours among both men and women.

What might this research help us understand about lawyer workplaces and how employers could improve their lawyers’ physical and mental health?
First, what a firm actually values is going to impact its people. I inserted the word “actually” because many employers—not limited to law—espouse values of caring about the well-being of their employees. But the proof is in the pudding. What messages do legal employers give to employees about what their values actually are, as opposed to what they say they are. In other words, do they walk the walk or just talk the talk?
Secondly, this research reinforces the value of effective performance feedback. Lawyers are busy and, sometimes, completing performance evaluations and providing feedback feels like an unnecessary drain on their limited time and energy. However, if we can understand that the feedback we provide to more junior colleagues impacts their health, perhaps we can raise the priority about communicating.
And it isn’t just about communicating—it is about what we communicate. Can performance feedback focus on helping lawyers and students feel valued for their growth in their professional skills as well as important professional values like integrity, trustworthiness, and conscientiousness? Firms could set objectives for lawyers that measure and report on these attributes, which would help communicate that these attributes are valued.
I want to be clear that this study does not say that law firms are bad or that large law firms are bad. The data was aggregated, and it may well be that there are firms who are developing their lawyers in terms of professionalism and skills over productivity and availability. It’s just that these firms’ positive impacts may have been muted by the intensity of negative health implications from firms that only focus on bottom line criteria.
This is how the researchers conclude their paper:

Recognizing and seeking to disrupt self-defeating management practices—such as valuing productivity above skill, talent, and human worth, or failing to provide meaningful feedback and make employees feel valued—would be wise pursuits for employers to both improve the lives of their employees and strengthen the organization’s financial performance. For individual lawyers themselves, better understanding the relationship between their own health and well-being and what their employer values most about them should hopefully allow for more informed decisions about the type of work environment they choose.

If you are a lawyer who feels like a fungible worker drone, where you feel valued only to the extent that you are docketing long hours and making yourself available, you may not be in the right work environment for you, and there is nothing wrong with changing jobs. Lawyers now have many jobs over the course of their careers, and lawyers who article at a firm and practice at that same firm their entire careers are a minority.
If you are an employer who needs junior bodies to fulfill repetitive tasks on large files, you may not be concerned with the impact of your organizational culture on individual employees, as long as there are new warm bodies to fill roles as current staff depart. But if you want to develop your junior cohorts into effective lawyers who have the best likelihood of becoming respected partners, you will want to ensure that you develop their professional skills and celebrate their growth so that they feel valued for who they are and what they are doing. It is important that juniors do not perceive a gap between what you say your values are and what they see everyday.
When I was a junior lawyer, we had performance reviews twice per year, and we were essentially told that we could gauge how we were doing between formal reviews by whether senior lawyers continued to give us work. This will always be a law firm reality. But the opportunity exists for law firm managers to deliver feedback strategically to ensure that junior lawyers perceive that their development is noticed and valued.
I am happy to chat with law firm managers about performance review strategies to build junior lawyer and articling student self-esteem while still communicating gaps in knowledge or skills that have to be addressed.
And if you are a lawyer or a student who feels unvalued for anything other than showing up and logging hours, there are alternatives.
Either way, call me—we can chat.