The Madness of Our Hours Culture

Lawyers love time. Time is money.

Most lawyers record every minute spent interacting or “working” on a client’s matter. Time is measured in units of six minutes. (Although, even if something  takes two minutes, one unit will still be recorded). Give them a call and send them an email, and before you know it, you’ve spent a few hundred (plus tax) on legal fees.

In practice of course, accurate time recording is difficult. Timers are often left on, or forgotten to be switched off. People are interrupted, or forget to switch file numbers. Some partners don’t even bother trying to record their time at all, and “estimate” as they go along.

It’s an archaic fee structure which rarely works in the client’s best interests.

Most lawyers have target hours to bill each month. As a result, lawyers are rarely incentivised to work as fast as possible.  Even on fixed fee deals. 

Have a deal with lots of lawyers working on it? Chances are that the time spent will be worth a lot more than what the client will have agreed, (or will agree), to pay. This will lead to time being written off. Meaning that most lawyers, in order to meet their targets, will be over-recording their time, or spending as much time as possible on the deal. That’s whether the deal needs it or not. Madness.

The hours culture, is a macho culture, where people boast about all nighters, and the number of hours they’ve put in.

Working with a good team, late into the night to make a deal happen can be exhilarating. I loved it. Coming into the office in the morning was like hitting a runway. I loved the pace, the adrenalin, and the challenge. My colleagues were fun and at the end of the week I was well and truly spent – I loved that feeling.

I’ve had the good fortune of working for a few different companies since then, and I’m a bit older, and wiser now. Sadly, I’ve seen how the same principles of getting ahead apply pretty much everywhere.

In-house or in private practice, big or small companies, it’s the hours you put in that counts.

Whether you’re actually doing good work or not doesn’t seem to matter.  If you can show the right people that you’re in the office until late, (regardless of if you’re working), coming in at the weekends, cancelling holidays, and responding to emails out of hours, you’ll impress the bosses with your “dedication”, and you’ll be on the road to pay rise.

During one of my annual appraisals, it was made clear to me that if I wanted to get ahead,  I needed to start responding to email when I was out of the office, (specifically, before I went to sleep and on the weekends…).  It didn’t matter that answering email at 2am would not have enhanced any of the good work I was doing. It didn’t matter whether or not doing so made any difference, or that I was always available in an emergency.  What mattered was showing my clients that I never really switched off, that I was obsessed with work, that 24/7, my job was my priority.

Of course, it takes time. You need to do this for months, usually years, before you might see any real benefit in your pay packet. But it doesn’t matter, so long as you eventually get that extra 5-10% increase, (of your gross income), or the prestige of a new job title, right?

Just make sure you don’t manage your time properly, focus on productivity, and leave at 5.30pm. Even if you produce the best work that anyone has ever seen, it’s not going to go down well if you’ve left for the day, and your colleagues are still “busy” in the office.  (This was illustrated to me recently by a good friend who was livid about her colleague who would leave at 6.30pm every night to collect her children from nursery, while my friend, (who is a self-confessed expert at wasting time), stayed in the office until late).

Why we do it, and what are the consequences? 

It’s not just the hours culture which is the problem.  If we’re honest, a lot of us, myself included (I’m ashamed to say), choose to stay late. It’s not just peer or work pressure. We’re all adults. We don’t have a gun to our heads. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, we don’t “have” to stay.

For me, staying at work was gratifying. I was getting things done, pleasing my clients, impressing the right people, and hopefully getting a step closer to a pay rise. Staying and cancelling whatever plans I had was the easy thing to do. I loved my friends, but by the evening, I was exhausted.  By 8pm, I hardly had energy to talk in complete sentences let alone socialise.

Clayton Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? summarises this brilliantly:

Many of us are wired with a high need for achievement, and your career is going to be the most immediate way to pursue that. In our own internal resource allocation process, it will be incredibly tempting to invest every extra hour of time or ounce of energy in whatever activity yields the clearest and most immediate evidence that we’ve achieved something.

For most of us, that’s going to be in our workplace.

In private practice, I remember partners who would sit at their desk reading the paper until at least 8.30pm every night.  “Working late”  is what they told their wives who would be calling to see when they would be home.  These guys had no work to do, they just didn’t feel that going home earlier was justified, (and sometimes preferred their offices over their homes). Their wives and children hardly saw them. It was sad, (and really put me off marriage!).

As Clayton says:

Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years.  What this leads us to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families – starving one of the most important parts of our life of the resources it needs to flourish“.

For some, staying at work “progressing” their career and satiating their ambition, is more satisfying than going home.  It’s easier to quantify the ROI on hours at work, not so easy with a recalcitrant child, or moody wife.

One of the worse things I’ve experienced, is seeing how the neglect of your family can implode. Over the years I’ve seen partners lose their wives, lose their children, have nervous breakdowns. It’s brutal, and it terrified me.  I never want to end up like that.

Time at work is easy to rationalise.  After all, who’s going to pay the mortgage, the bills, school fees, etc?

I don’t have children, so can’t appreciate how difficult it must be to struggle with a full time job and school arrangements, but does it really mean that you have to miss out on being an integral part of your child’s life?  Not having your parents around, and neglecting to cultivate a healthy relationship with your kids has consequences. Trust me. It’s not something you can leave until they’re older, by then you won’t even know who they are, and vice versa.

I see friends rationalise themselves into ruts all the time.  For them, the hours culture is “just the way it is”, they just need one more pay rise or promotion before they start looking for a better job, or going home on time. Their partners and friends can wait.

It also takes energy to find a new job, or stand your ground and go home on time. My friends, like I was, are in bad shape and look a lot older than they should do. For many of my exhausted friends who are working until the early hours of the morning, continuing on the path they’re on, is the easy option.

Why the hours culture is bad?

Lawyers, believe it or not, are human beings.

No matter how experienced the team, the lack of sleep, unhealthy diet, and stress will inevitably lead to expensive mistakes, huge health problems, and burn out. I’ve seen it happen.

Work is how most people identify themselves.  I’ve been asking a few of my career obsessed friends about their interests, and half of them can’t come up with any.  They are so obsessed with their salary, that they’ve become numb to life outside of work. They don’t enjoy their jobs and live oblivious to the variety of joy and beauty that this world has to offer.

Too many people use work as an excuse, a way to hide from real life. Work is an easy way to fill their time without doing anything meaningful or truly enjoyable with their life.  It’s a way to avoid addressing the real issues in their lives.

Tragically, while we’re working long hours it’s the people that love us, that miss our company and input into their lives, who really suffer. We let our loved ones down by being chronically late, cancelling dinners/lunches/bed times/birthdays/funerals. Somehow work can always be rationalised into being a priority, more of a priority than spending time with them anyway.

I’m as guilty of spending long hours in the office as anyone else. It’s easy to get sucked in to it. Time at your desk just disappears and before you know it, it’s 11pm. Colleagues get used to having you around. Saying no is hard, and you feel guilty, and embarrassed to be leaving on time. Changing that is difficult.

Like many others who work long hours, I have a supportive partner and good friends. But, like Clayton Christensen says,

Your family and friends rarely shout the loudest to demand your attention.  They love you and they want to support your career, too.  That can add up to neglecting the people you care most about in the world“.

I enjoyed my job, but it took its toll on my partner who never saw me, my friends and family who put up with constant cancellations, and my body and health that never seemed to find time for proper sleep or exercise. They deserved better, and life is too short.

It’s when life is about to end that we appreciate it most.  Seeing death nearby, often highlights the real priorities in people’s lives.

Guess what? Those priorities don’t include filing a court paper, or closing a deal. It’s time spent enjoying life and connecting with those you love.

Trust me – unless you’re doing hugely important work, your work is not going to matter. What matters is love, the relationships you’ve cultivated, and the impact you’ve had on people’s lives.

I’m not disputing that colleagues can become close friends. They often do. But, there’s a difference between relationships that are purely a product of being in the same environment as someone, and relationships you will nurture even after you’ve left.

If you die, who will be affected the most?  Your partner, son or daughter, your friends and family? Or your boss and the shareholders of your company? When your time arrives, what do you want your memories of this earth to be?  Fun and exciting times with the people you love, or days wasted in an office.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to working long hours.  If those extra hours at the end of the day/weekend  will produce a significant development in meaningful work you’re doing, or will increase the overall quality of your family’s life, then it makes sense.

Give me meaningful work, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get what you need done. In the absence of that, playing the hours game for no reason, sacrificing the people who mean the most to me for years at a time, for a 5-20% shot of promotion or an extra few hundred pounds a month salary increase is a price too high to pay.

 

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