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Lawyers! Are your clocks making you ill?

Mindfulness is the buzz-word of recent years with everyone desperately trying to remain ‘in the present moment’. But how does that fit with the ticking clocks on the computer screen that dominate many lawyers’ lives? They’re an ever-present reminder of how long you’ve been working on each job and of the passage of time. Usually sat alongside a graph of progress against the dreaded ‘billing target’; the two together are a constant reminder to strive to record ‘enough’ hours and bill the clients ‘enough’ money.

analog clock sketch in black surface
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on

What effect do these reminders of time have on our mental health?

Quite a big one, I would suggest. Given that lawyers are notoriously goal-driven perfectionists anyway, I think that the effect is particularly potent as a constant marker of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

There’s also that tricky tightrope for solicitors to walk of recording ‘enough’ hours to produce as much revenue as possible, whilst not taking ‘too long’ over a task so as to be criticised by boss and client.

The different approaches of different bosses to time recording can also cause stress for junior lawyers. The two main types seem to be…

  • ‘Unapologetic Bill’ who wants you to record and charge the client for all the time spent, sending you into a state of fearful anticipation about the client’s reaction when they get the bill and inevitably dissect your time entries; and
  • ‘Slash and burn Steve’ who consistently writes off huge swathes of your time, leaving you feeling insecure as to both the quality of your work and the amount of time you spent on it.

…and of course there are some others inbetween…

The ‘planning fallacy’

A big problem with time recording and providing fee estimates is that we’re just not as good as calculating how long something will take us as we think we are.

This is about more than lawyers trying to woo clients with low costs estimates. It relates to a psychological phenomenon known as the planning fallacy in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism  bias and underestimate the time needed. This happens regardless of the fact that the person knows that similar past tasks have taken them longer to complete than planned. You only need to think about the chronic overrunning of projects like Crossrail, to see this fallacy in action. It was also found that we also routinely underestimate the risks of future actions and tend to overestimate their potential benefits. This is a pretty stark fact for lawyers to face given that our legal lives are spent weighing up the benefits of different courses of action.

The tyranny of time

I think that the more we can move away from markers of ‘success’ in the legal profession being based on time spent, the better. It’s true that firms have become better at recognising markers other than hours in the office such as community activities, volunteering, a particular contribution to morale or a team initiative and these things are now routinely discussed in appraisals and promotion discussions.

But how much impact can these initiatives have on lawyers’ mind-sets compared with the dominance of the minute-by-minute reminder of the ticking clock?

While these new markers are positive, there is also an unintended consequence in that they load more pressure on solicitors not only meet the financial targets but also to be the ‘all-singing, all-dancing rainmaker, company tennis player who also volunteers in his spare time.

Are you a human being or a human doing?

More needs to be done to steer lawyers away from this endless ‘productivity’ and I believe that the move towards more fixed fee work will hopefully help with this.

With my therapeutic clients, I often focus not on ‘productivity’ but on how to access ‘flow’ i.e. that feeling when you get fully immersed in a job and totally in the present. Flow helps us to access creativity, spontaneity and flexibility of thought, which are all helpful tools for lawyers. But it’s nigh on impossible to access this if you’re feeling under pressure to constantly be productive.

Another key aspect of wellness is taking time for reflection. For lawyers, this can mean time considering the broader strategy of a case and/or reflecting at the end of the case on lessons learned. It’s also healthy for lawyers to spend time thinking and talking about how their cases are affecting them and what they bring to their cases. In a system dominated by time recording such activities are often neglected, given that they are largely ‘unchargeable’.

I really hope that now is the time when we see a shift in culture so that wellness is at the forefront of the legal profession rather than just being paid lip service to. The recently appointed President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane has this week urged lawyers to ‘look after themselves’ and to put their wellbeing at the heart of what they do. Let’s hope people listen.