To Improve Well-Being, NYSBA Recommends Capping Billable Hours at 1,800

Feet on asphalt road with arrow pointing to better future. Want to improve attorney well-being? Start by capping billable hours at 1,800, making sure lawyers take all of their vacation time, and standardizing virtual hearings.

These recommendations, in addition to requiring that law students study well-being, were a few of the changes proposed by the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being and approved by the House of Delegates on Oct. 30.

The recommendations stem from an October 2020 survey of 3,089 New York attorneys that explored how well-being impacts lawyers.

“We owe it to the next generation of lawyers, to our clients, to the justice system, and to ourselves to end a culture in our industry that too often overlooks or even encourages behavior that leads to untreated addiction, alienation due to racism, and mental health issues,” NYSBA President T. Andrew Brown said in a press release. “To address these deep-seated problems will require systemic change and a recalculation of priorities to end the stigmatization of those who seek help.”

The 5-year itch?

Overall, attorneys ranked their satisfaction with legal practice at 3.42 on a scale of 1 to 5. The survey found career satisfaction starts to trend downward after the fifth year of practice and was lowest among lawyers who had been practicing for 11-15 years.

Solo practitioners and those in firms of 101 to 200 lawyers were least satisfied with their work. The “sweet spot” for law firm life seems to be firms of 21 to 100 lawyers, with small firms of 2 to 10 lawyers and large firms of 200-plus also ranking high, according to the NYSBA report.

When it comes to practice type, judges said they’re most satisfied in their careers, followed by in-house, government, and legal aid attorneys. Solo practitioners reported being least satisfied.

What’s impacting attorney well-being?

Respondents overall ranked a “lack of boundaries for ‘down time’ or ‘never off,’” “client expectations and demands,” and “financial pressures in the ‘business of law’” as significantly impacting their health, according to the survey.

Judges cited “isolation” as most impacting their well-being, while government or agency attorneys said it’s the “culture of law and/or the culture of my work setting.”

Other notable responses included a lack of options for advancement, a lack of agency or autonomy, discrimination against lawyers with disabilities, and racism, sexism, and ageism.

And COVID-19 may be exacerbating these problems. At the time of the survey, roughly 17% of respondents said they were consuming more alcohol and drugs than they previously had and/or felt they needed to quit but couldn’t.

The judiciary’s role

Roughly 84% of respondents said the judiciary should play a role in promoting lawyer well-being and mental health.

What actions should the judiciary take? Over 67% of respondents said continuing virtual appearances post-pandemic would foster well-being; this number was higher in lawyers with disabilities (88%). This recommendation was followed by “harmonizing differing rules and requirements of judges within the same court” and “adjusting judicial temperament.”

Other notable responses included that some solo practitioners and small firm lawyers said they feel that the judiciary favors lawyers from larger firms and that they often feel bullied by big law firms.

Fostering diversity and equity on the bench and addressing racism in the courts, which continue to be a challenge, were also cited. More than 20% of lawyers said they have had their credentials questioned by another attorney, the judiciary, court officer, or layperson while in the course of their duties.

Additional recommendations

In addition to capping billable hours, encouraging lawyers to use their vacation time, and requiring that law students study wellness, to improve attorney well-being, the task force recommended the following:

  • Training the judiciary on the importance of recognizing the challenges of mental health issues
  • Acknowledging the negative impact of a lack of diversity among law school professors and working to change it
  • Persuading law firms to encourage parents to take necessary leave
  • Continuing to offer virtual hearings to accommodate lawyers with disabilities
  • Addressing discrimination faced by lawyers of color in some courtrooms
  • Creating more continuing legal education classes focused on well-being

To read the task force’s full report, click here.

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