November 23, 2021

Significant Number of Top Lawyers Want Fewer Hours and Less Non-Billable Responsibilities, Says Thomson Reuters Report

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL, November 23, 2021 – After enduring more than a year of remote working and uncertainty about the direction of the legal market, nearly one in three stand-out lawyers would prefer to work fewer hours. Those are among the conclusions of the Stellar Performance: Skills and Progressions 2021 Mid-Year Survey from Thomson Reuters.

The report surveyed nearly 1,200 stand-out lawyers in more than 50 countries. Stand-out lawyers were identified by senior in-house counsel through the Thomson Reuters Sharplegal survey.

Thirty percent of stand-out lawyers globally said they would like to work fewer hours. The majority of their colleagues (53%) said they are satisfied with the total number of hours they are working. Only 17% desire to work more hours. In aggregate, the average desired workload represents 50 fewer hours per lawyer, a small reduction given that average annual workloads are often in excess of 2,000 billable hours.

Not surprisingly, the desire for fewer hours is stronger among younger lawyers, particularly those under 40 years of age. It is also led by women, who currently put in about 100 more hours on average than their male counterparts, which equates to more than 5% additional hours. Lawyers over 60 years old currently bill the fewest hours per year, but many would like a reduction in billable hours.

“While lawyers are extremely busy, especially as the legal industry continues its strong recovery from the effects of the pandemic, more than half surveyed are willing to keep at least current levels of work. But the fact that 3 in 10 lawyers would prefer fewer hours is significant and, as the report notes, ‘law firms should not interpret the overall outcome as a signal that all is well,’” said Neil Sternthal, head of Large Law for Thomson Reuters.

In terms of non-billable activities, the report points out a mismatch between lawyers’ responsibilities and what they think would make best use of the skills, experience, and interests. Only 2% of lawyers surveyed are completely happy with their current set of non-billable activities. Not only do lawyers wish to reduce their average number of non-billable responsibilities from 10.4 to 8.5, but lawyers on average would like to drop four of their current responsibilities – talent recruitment and development, and marketing activities, in particular – and pick up two new ones.

The report states that many firms “believe wrongly that using lawyers on these tasks is somehow free.” Sternthal added, “As firms evaluate the skillsets and desires amongst their lawyers, the report suggests they take into consideration how certain activities can produce dissatisfaction. Conversely, the data implies that if firms allow lawyers to focus more on their areas of interest, it would provide a greater sense of trust and empowerment, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.”

Potential “easy wins” in efficiency-enhancing technologies

Technology can play an important role in improving lawyers’ ability to manage their tasks, and stand-out lawyers said that new automation tools should be their firms’ number-one priority for technology investment. However, lawyers also feel strongly that firms are not doing enough to optimize the return on technology investments that they have already made.

In particular, according to the report, technology budgets often fail to accurately take into account the cost of training, resulting in low levels of adoption. Collaboration, customer relationship management, and project management tools represent the highest potential quick wins for firms to enhance the impact of their existing technologies through improved training.

“The past year has greatly accelerated several major trends that were already under way on how much lawyers wish to work and the makeup of that work,” said Lucy Leach, the report author and senior technical research manager, Thomson Reuters. “To get the most out of their teams, firms need to consider how lawyers’ attitudes are changing on issues such as workload and career development, and how technology can improve those and other factors. Optimizing these could potentially pay tremendous dividends for firms in enhancing productivity, reducing turnover, and improving overall firm performance.”

For a copy of the Stellar Performance: Skills and Progressions 2021 Mid-Year Survey, visit

Thomson Reuters

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Jeff McCoy