Attorney Jonathan Wolf, writing for Above the Law, recounts a nonprofit board’s decision to reduce employees’ hours to 33.75 per week without any drop in salary or benefits. Last year, the board saw a small increase in productivity, but members were still hesitant to make the change permanent, opting instead to extend the policy for a few months.
Citing positive results from similar trials like that done by Microsoft Japan in the summer of 2019, Wolf argues that a shorter workweek could be a meaningful benefit for legal nonprofits to offer as a way to offset lower pay. When similarly qualified individuals stand to make a lot more money in the private sector, this shot at better work-life balance could be a great selling point for more cash-strapped nonprofit organizations.
With the “albatross of the billable hour” dictating longer hours for those in private practice, Wolf doesn’t predict any change in law firm culture when it comes to the time employees need to put in. For some lawyers, the 60- or 80-hour week might be worth the big financial upside, especially if they commit to it for a short period of time. A few years could mean life-changing money that’s worth the trade-off, and for some individuals, this option might be what’s right for them and their lives.
The reluctance of the nonprofit’s board to reduce the workweek permanently is telling. It’s a policy that could be hard to reverse, and it’s possible that the small increase in productivity won’t last. Moreover, for firms that charge by the hour, lowering the number of hours would directly decrease revenues. Rather than reduce workweeks to 33.75 hours or some other arbitrary level, law firms would likely be better off requiring multiple levels of approval for lawyers who bill beyond a certain number of hours, especially over an extended period. This could be a way to improve the quality of work, reduce errors, and limit exposure to the liabilities that come from working while exhausted.