Long hours: a sign of poor practice

Lawyers must insist on their EU-sanctioned right to a 48-hour week. And so should their bosses, says Neasa MacErlean . WHY are lawyers so likely to be workaholics? This question was indirectly addressed in a research report on long working hours from the Institute of Personnel and Development last week.

Although the document did not touch specifically on solicitors or barristers, it concluded that many of the people who stay late in the office do so – consciously or unconsciously – because they want to.

But there is no doubt that many in the legal profession are damaging their health (not to mention their happiness) by working too hard. Law Society research from 1997 shows that more than half of the country's 71,000 qualified solicitors are working at the very least 46 hours a week.

Professor Cary Cooper, a psychologist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, has campaigned for years to highlight the ill effects of long hours and stress.

He believes that the odd 50-hour week will not hurt most people, but is extremely worried about those who make it a habit.

“Consistently working people 50 hours a week is probably damaging them. Recent studies from Japan have shown that there is a higher risk of heart attacks for people who regularly work more than 48 hours a week.”

Cooper adds that most people regularly working more than 60 hours a week put their hearts and bodies under a dangerous amount of pressure.

It is worth remembering that factory workers at the start of this century were used to a 60 or 70-hour week. They also had a life expectation 20 years shorter than the average person today.

The issue of overwork is particularly important now because many employees in law firms will soon be asked to sign away their rights to work less than 48 hours per week.

Last Thursday, the European Union introduced its working time directive capping the hours of most workers to 48 a week. But the EU has left the way open for personnel departments to get around this by allowing workers to completely waive these rights.

Thousands of assistant solicitors will undoubtedly agree to do so (although they should know that they can give employers three months' notice to reinstate rights).

But if lawyers do waive their rights, they will be accepting that they will see less of their friends, spouses and children and that they will have less time to read books, go for walks or do whatever else they like doing.

They will sign the waiver forms because they want to do well. They will believe their commitment is partly measured by their willingness to work until 9pm or later.

But consistently working long hours is usually a sign of poor time management. Some of the best workers are those who leave at 5:30pm, after putting in an intense seven-hour day. If you have really worked hard for this period, you feel as if you have just sat two university exams – and there is very little point in staying on for another three hours. You should go off to see a film or relax in some other way.

City lawyers working on a takeover or high street lawyers with conveyancing deadlines have no choice but to work long hours on occasions.

But Philip Brown of management consultants Hodgart Temporal believes that many lawyers are, in general, working longer than they need to: “They are not always terribly good at managing their time and delegating. Partners often work too many hours on the wrong things – doing the work rather than managing the team or developing the relationship with the client.”

There is also a tendency to perfectionism, which Brown feels is a very dangerous, self-defeating quality that leads partners to do the work themselves rather than delegating.

Before they let the human resources departments send out the waiver forms on the 48-hour working week, partners should have a long discussion about how they treat their staff.

Theoretically, staff should not be discriminated against if they refuse to sign. But, in practice, people will worry that they will be seen as lacking in drive and commitment. Your staff will not respect you if you force them to sign something so patently disagreeable.

Everyone loses from the long hours culture. Mistakes are made by lawyers who are exhausted at the end of a 10-hour day and an Institute of Management survey last month showed that almost three-quarters of managers think their relationship with their partner suffers because of long hours.

As the old joke goes, who on their deathbed ever said they wished they had spent more time in the office?

Neasa MacErlean's new book Get More from Work – and More Fun is published by the Institute of Personnel and Development and costs £9.95.