The High Cost of Billable Hours on Lawyers' Mental Health: A Wake-Up Call for the Legal Profession
The legal profession has always been known for long hours, high stress, and a culture of billable hours. However, a new report by Université de Sherbrooke reveals the alarming costs of this culture on lawyers' mental health.
The report, which surveyed over 3,000 Quebec lawyers, found that the more billable hours worked, the greater the likelihood of mental health problems. "Lawyers who work more than 50 hours per week are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than those who work fewer hours," the report states.
The study also found that lawyers who prioritize billable hours over self-care are more likely to experience burnout. "Lawyers who do not engage in leisure activities are 32% more likely to suffer from burnout," the report notes.
This is not the first study to show the negative impact of billable hours on lawyers' mental health. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association found that "lawyers who reported the highest number of billable hours also reported the highest levels of stress, anxiety, and depression."
The consequences of this culture of billable hours can be devastating. The Université de Sherbrooke report notes that "lawyers have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide than the general population."
The report recommends that law firms prioritize the mental health of their employees by creating a culture that values self-care and work-life balance over billable hours. This could include implementing policies such as flexible work schedules, regular mental health check-ins, and providing resources for mental health support.
It's not just law firms that need to take action, however. The legal profession as a whole needs to address this issue. As the report notes, "the culture of billable hours is deeply entrenched in the legal profession and requires a fundamental shift in thinking to change."
It's time for the legal profession to prioritize the mental health and well-being of its members. As the Université de Sherbrooke report shows, the cost of ignoring this issue is too high.
Cadieux, L., Bergeron, S., Gagné, M.-H., Gervais, M., & Fauteux, F. (2022). Enquête sur la santé mentale des avocates et avocats du Québec. Université de Sherbrooke. https://flsc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/EN_Preliminary-report_Cadieux-et-al_Universite-de-Sherbrooke_FINAL.pdfKrill, P. R., Johnson, R., & Albert, L. (2016). The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 10(1), 46–52. https://doi.org/10.1097/ADM.0000000000000182Levy, S. (2017, March 22). The Psychology of Billing More Than 24 Hours in a Day. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/business/billable-hour-law-firms.html
Billable Hours and LWB
The National Study on Psychological Health Determinants of Canadian Legal Professionals considered the impact that billable hours targets had on lawyer well-being.
The study found that lawyers’ psychological health was impacted by pressure to meet billable hour targets. While length of practice provided a mitigating factor in respect of some legal practice stressors, billable hour pressure were felt by senior lawyers as well as junior lawyers.
Specifically, the Study found that billable hours pressure caused an increase in depressive symptoms among legal professions, and that this was intensified when heavy emotional demands were also in play.
The study recommended that lawyers in the first two years of practice should not have billable hours quotas.
I have spoken with lawyers at Alberta firms who have told me that they do not have a billable hour target for junior associates. This is good—the juniors can focus more on learning than on their utilization rate. Perhaps utilisation rates can be gradually introduced.
Law firms may resist changing their business model, using billable hours to determine client billings and compensation levels. Billable hours, on the face of it, are a fair measure of how much work is being conducted on a file. But when faced with data showing that this measure is harmful to not just junior lawyers but lawyers at all levels, will they change?
Lawyers are competitive by nature. Pies have to be divided up somehow—something will replace billable hours as far as compensation is concerned.
But setting targets, billable or otherwise, that allow for reasonable life outside of law is important. Our time off-work—and we have to have time off from work—allows us to engage in activities that recharge our batteries. Whatever measure firms choose, the commitment from the firm that lawyers should not be working more than forty, or fifty—or whatever number of hours—must be communicated, along with the right to detach.
Psychological detachment, along with assertiveness, are skills that the Study found to be protective. Many lawyers feel that they cannot detach from their devices, let alone engage in meaningful activities, in case they miss an email or an opportunity to do work. Law firms could set themselves apart in the talent market by offering and maintaining detachment opportunities, allowing professionals to choose whether they want to be on a demanding hamster wheel of 24/7 demands, or a more balanced life.
I would not have gone to law school had I know that the expectation was that you worked as many hours in a week as possible. I thought I could work quickly and effectively and that would allow me to get my work done in a reasonable timeframe so I would still have time for a rich outside life. But I got seduced into the billable hours trap—it is easy to fall into.
We are more aware of the harms that billable hour pressure can cause, so the Study gives us the opportunity to reset what we do. We cannot and should not stop people who want to be workaholics. But we have to provide roadmaps and exit ramps for lawyers who want something different from their lives.