How Many Hours Do Lawyers Work?

How Many Hours Do Lawyers WorkIt’s no secret that a lawyer’s work hours are generally long. The arduous hours spent studying at law school are good preparation for professional workdays that extend well beyond the typical nine-to-five.

But is the well-worn image of a lawyer staying late to finish up on casework in the office accurate?

How many hours do lawyers work a week exactly? Or a day?

Whether you’re a lawyer who wants to benchmark yourself against other lawyers, an aspiring lawyer who’s wondering what you’re getting yourself in for, or a client wondering how hard your lawyer is working on your case, it’s a question that demands an answer.

Of course, there’s no one answer. It varies greatly from firm to firm, but we’ve gathered a few insights about lawyer work hours that we’d like to share.

Why are lawyers’ working hours so long?

Here’s what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says about the working environment for legal professionals.

Lawyer Work Hours US Bureau Labor Statistics
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The statement “the majority of lawyers work full time and many work more than 40 hours per week” seems like an understatement. Most lawyers we meet work way more than 40 hours each week.

Before we can arrive at a truer figure for a typical lawyer’s work week, let’s consider what a lawyer does.

This varies whether you provide in-house counsel, are part of a large corporate law firm, or run a small private practice — it also varies by practice area and location

But it’s likely that you provide legal advice and represent individuals, companies, or government agencies with the following types of services:

  • Representing clients in courts of law on issues/disputes
  • Researching and analyzing complex legal issues
  • Researching and interpreting laws, legal decisions, and regulations for cases
  • Communicating with other parties involved in legal cases, such as colleagues, clients, judges, insurance companies, etc.
  • Arguing or negotiating on behalf of clients
  • Preparing and filing official legal documents, like lawsuits, wills, deeds, and appeals
  • Mediating or collaborating between disputing parties

So, a typical work week for a lawyer could include any or all of these tasks — all of which are time-consuming.

The nature of legal work means that the need for availability, precision, and documentation come with the job. Mistakes are costly and the work can change people’s lives for the better or worse — so nothing can be rushed.

Not being there when needed is not an option in the case of criminal defense lawyers, family lawyers with emergency cases, personal injury lawyers representing seriously injured claimants, and so on.

Being available for clients as part of the service naturally extends working hours, as this criminal defense law firm in Minneapolis makes clear.

Lawyer Work Hours Criminal Defense
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Most office-based professionals don’t work in such high-stakes, high-pressure environments, so they don’t require so many hours of diligence. As a busy lawyer, it’s easy to get behind and to start “drowning in paperwork” — staying back late to catch up is very common.

Then there are the pressures many lawyers face to make money for their firms.

The Balance Careers paints a none-too-rosy picture of the law profession, saying that “billable hour quotas at many ‘Big Law’ firms require that lawyers work a minimum of 80 hours a week, and they’re required to be on call even when they’re not technically working.”

With attorneys having to work a minimum billable hours quota as well as completing the other non-billable work, it’s easy to see how 10 pm in the office can become the norm.

Lawyer hours: How much more than 40 hours/week do lawyers work?

The hours billed by lawyers that show up on client invoices only paint part of the picture.

In 2021, lawyers recorded an average of 2.5 billable hours in an eight-hour day. This means that just over 30 percent of the average lawyer’s work is billed.

Interestingly, when we consider that lawyers also fail to collect on around 11 percent of the hours billed, we can see why so many law firms feel squeezed financially — but that’s another story.

Most lawyers work far harder than the hours they bill for — and not just the big law professionals in the major cities. Attorneys who run their own practices often spend significant time on administrative duties, invoicing, processing payments, updating trust ledgers, and so on.

When we consider this and the pressure to get things completed on time, the long work hours for lawyers don’t seem so surprising.

Clio’s Legal Trends Report from 2018 reported that the average lawyer aims to spend 46.8 hours per week working but, in actuality, usually works an extra 2.8 hours a week, making a total of 49.7 hours per week.

In a five-day working week, that’s almost 10 hours a day. And the extra hours over and above the planned hours each week amount to an extra 3.5 working weeks per year:

Legal Trends Report (2018)

From our regular discussions with lawyers around North America, even these high-average figures don’t tell the full story. Regular 70-80-hour weeks are the norm for many of the hardest working lawyers trying to build their practices.

How do lawyer work hours differ between law firm practice areas?

All lawyers occasionally have to work long hours on a particular case. But for some, 50 to 70-hour work weeks are the norm.

As already mentioned, big city lawyers may have billable hour targets, and small firms/solo attorneys may be understaffed and take on many administrative tasks as well as billable lawyer work.

Other discrepancies exist between lawyer work hours due to reputation, location, and practice area. A corporate law firm like Romano Law in New York, which is regularly featured on major news channels, will charge a higher rate than a relatively unknown small family lawyer in West Virginia or Idaho.

Lawyer Work Hours Corporate Law
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The difference in rates can be hundreds of dollars per hour. That can mean that the corporate lawyer is prepared to work long hours and is on call 24/7 because of the highly lucrative work.

This does not mean that one type of lawyer works any harder than another. But it highlights the fact that reputation, economics, and the pressures of big city life do come into play.

Another difference is between in-house counsel and those who run a private law practice. In-house lawyers are often seen as a major expense, and companies pile the workloads on to ensure they get their money’s worth.

While moving to private practice can have its lifestyle and economic advantages (if you run the business well), many solo and small-practice lawyers find themselves sucked into doing a lot more besides law work when they run their own businesses.

That includes marketing for lawyers.

They rarely, if ever, enjoy a “normal” nine-to-five schedule.

Junior lawyer work hours and the impact of remote working

Junior and trainee lawyer work hours are sometimes even more eye-opening than those of senior lawyers.

A Legal Cheek study of US law firms in the UK in 2021 surveyed 2,500 junior lawyers as the move to remote-working was at full steam (during the pandemic).

It found that lawyers at corporate law firm Kirkland & Ellis racked up the longest working day, averaging a 9:14 AM start and finishing at around 11:28 PM.

This was followed by Ropes & Gray with a finish time of 10:51 PM, and Weil Gotshal & Manges with an average finish at 10:17 PM.

All of these firms are U.S. firms practicing in London, with junior and trainee lawyers regularly clocking 70-hour work weeks and some staying beyond midnight!

While the time difference between the UK and the US may account for some of this (and junior lawyers often stay back to make a good impression), it’s no less likely to result in lawyer burnout in the long run.

Legal Cheek Trainee & Junior Lawyer Survey (2021-22)

At the other end of the spectrum in the Legal Cheek survey, lawyers at provincial UK law firms tended to start an hour earlier and finish several hours earlier, with closer to a 45 to 50-hour working week — much more reasonable.

The “burnout” problem with long work hours for lawyers

Long hours may “come with the territory,” but there are unforeseen consequences to this.

Few people can work 50-70 hours per week every week and not expect it to catch up with them in some form. It’s an unsustainable lifestyle.

Remember, 39 percent of lawyers surveyed in the Legal Trends Report in 2018 said that working long hours negatively affected their personal lives. Family and personal difficulties can result from a consistently heavy workload without adequate breaks — regardless of how big the paycheck or monthly revenue figure is.

Lawyer burnout is a real thing caused by excessive work hours and stress. While many lawyers are aware that they’re putting too many hours in, plenty are either not aware or will not admit it until their energy levels are so decimated that they need to take an extended break.

Unfortunately, it often leads to drug dependency and substance-abuse problems.

A study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs some years ago revealed “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”

Among its findings were:

  • 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers
  • 28 percent struggle with some level of depression
  • 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety

The problem of lawyer burnout and stress was also more recently examined by Legal Week — with equally alarming findings. More than one-third (37 percent) of respondents said they regularly work more than 60 hours each week, with 15 percent of these lawyers clocking more than 70 hours each week:

Legal Week’s Big Question Survey (2018)

How can lawyers keep healthier work hours?

The nature of the legal profession means that there will be times when there’s no escape from the long hours required to meet court deadlines, finalize arguments, prepare the relevant documentation, meet the necessary parties involved in a case, and so on.

However, if you’re going to be a lawyer for the next three or four decades, you want to make sure you maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Fortunately, plenty of help is at hand from technology and elsewhere. This and a few common-sense decisions that put your health and well-being first, will help you keep working hours that are good for your business and good for your health.

Plan your time and stick to daily/weekly work hour limits

Determine the maximum (and minimum) number of working hours within a week that you’d like to work, and that’ll allow you to deliver the requisite professional quality.

If you run your own practice or are considering starting your own law firm, you’ll want to consider the hours you need to put in to generate enough revenue to cover overheads and fund the growth of your firm.

Lawyer Work Hours Time Management

Be specific with your times, taking into account the times of day when you’re most productive (for many people, it’s early in the morning, but others are nightbirds).

Then, allocate time to your family, friends, and social connections and even plan time for sleep, meals, and exercise. Commit to this schedule in writing, as you would with a business plan, and stick with it as best as possible.

This may seem unnecessary, but it’s been proven that writing down goals/commitments makes them more actionable. Besides, in the long run, not getting enough sleep, poor diet, and lack of exercise are all going to catch up with you and make you far less productive.

Use practice management software

The right legal practice management software can significantly impact your work hours if you’re running your own firm.

Uptime Practice App For Lawyers
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Practice management software automates many of the most time-consuming tasks and helps to manage your practice even when you’re not there.

Cloud-based packages like Uptime Practice can help you efficiently look after scheduling, time-tracking, communications, billing, bookkeeping, client records, compliance, and more.

Use other time-saving lawyer apps

If you run a practice, many other apps can help you save time and work more efficiently. This is the key to freeing up more time for billable casework and feeling less pressure to stay late at the office to manage the business.

Our article on 21 Legal Apps Your Firm Can’t Do Without covers the best apps for lawyers, including apps for legal note-taking, legal research, document management, communications, social media, litigation, etc.

Outsource the heavy-lifting

It’s amazing how many lawyers try to manage almost everything when running a private practice.

Nowadays, it’s relatively straightforward to find talented copywriters, marketers, bookkeepers, accountants and other professionals who can do much of the heavy lifting for your practice.

By outsourcing, you’ll free up loads of time not only to focus on billable casework but to take more breaks — and to read a good book.

Delegate more work

Are you still doing tasks that someone else in the firm could be doing? Maybe certain admin tasks, social media marketing, gathering reviews or client outreach?

If so, it may be eating unnecessarily into your time. By entrusting more of these tasks to others and delegating more, you can help restore work-life balance.

Lawyer work hours explained

If you’re a potential client looking to hire a lawyer, you’ve seen just how many hours lawyers work and why. That should help explain the fees that your lawyer charges if you’re researching these.

If, on the other hand, you’re a trainee lawyer thinking about entering the law profession and researching what’s in store or you’re already a lawyer and wondering if every lawyer works as many hours as you do, the above should help you answer your questions.

And, hopefully, if you’re a lawyer working too many hours, you’ll now take a few steps toward restoring balance in your life by using the available technology to work smarter — not harder.