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Junior lawyers work ever longer hours as demand keeps surging

Lawyers are working ever longer hours under a deluge of demand from private equity clients in particular, with new data showing junior lawyers at US firm Kirkland & Ellis are clocking off around 11.30pm on average.

According to the figures by Legal Cheek, trainees and junior associates’ working days have extended in the past year, with many at the top US firms in London toiling past 10pm on average.

The 2,500 lawyers surveyed this year reported average finishing times of 11.28pm at Kirkland, 10.51pm at Ropes & Gray and 10.17pm at fellow US law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

According to Legal Cheek’s data, Kirkland associates reported clocking off at 9.46pm last year on average.

Those longer hours coincide with a stellar period for deals at firms such as Kirkland, the world’s highest-grossing law firm. The firm advised on 58 deals worth $19bn between the first and third quarter of 2021, according to GlobalData, followed closely by Latham & Watkins.

But high demand for lawyers has triggered a burnout problem among firms, which are losing junior talent and paying ever larger sums to retain staff. Pay deals for newly qualified lawyers in London have risen above £147,00 at firms such as Goodwin Procter.

But lawyers say long hours are not as big an issue as lost weekends and holidays, or the inability to take breaks, particularly in the case of deals-focused lawyers who expect to stay late when working on large transactions.

One Kirkland partner who asked to remain anonymous said: “Most practice areas have a degree of cyclicality, so, during the pandemic, teams like restructuring have been working those kinds of hours [reported in the survey] . . . but the firm has hired record numbers to absorb that impact.”

“The inability to take a day or two off every now and then” and “the prospect of working on deal after deal” with no break were factors in burnout risk, he said. In normal times, “if you’re working on a deal, you might expect to be working very late and then, when you’re off that deal, be able to take time off”. 

In its survey of burnout among lawyers published in September, LawCare, a charity that supports mental wellbeing in the legal profession, found that high workload, long working hours and lack of sleep were all factors that contributed to stress and anxiety among lawyers. It found that almost 70 per cent of lawyers in its study had experienced mental ill-health in the previous 12 months.

In a comment to the Financial Times Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said: “Effective supervision and management of junior staff is so important to safeguard their mental wellbeing and this should include monitoring their hours and workloads.” 

To combat overwork, firms such as English stalwart Slaughter and May have been experimenting with flexible models that would let lawyers take breaks between deals or reduce their hours.

Lawyers said intense work rates tended to ebb and flow.

Charlie Geffen, former corporate chair at US law firm Gibson Dunn, said: “The market is white hot at the moment and law firms are not normally configured for this level of activity. But it won’t last.

“There are lots of examples of periods like this, for example before the global financial crisis and the dotcom crash . . . Late nights have always been a function of deal activity.” 

Ropes & Gray declined to comment. Other firms did not respond to requests for comment.

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