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The issue of overwork in the legal profession often focuses on the big end of town, but the problem of exhausting work hours is far from limited to large firms. Amid stubbornly high rates of overwork at small law firms and sole practices in Australia, experts shine the spotlight on strategies that can assist.

Research backs up the widespread pattern of overwork in firms both big and small. A recent profession poll, for instance, found a significant proportion of Australian lawyers work more than 50 hours per week, with 20 per cent putting in between 50 to 60 hours and 13 per cent doing more than 60 hours.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder sole practitioners and principals of boutique firms can be among those most at risk of overwork. They’re especially susceptible, experts say, because they must be professionally capable, up to speed with legal developments, and maintain a profitable business – all at once.

Peta Sigley, CEO of resilience training organisation Springfox, says the extra burden of competing with bigger firms often adds to workloads for small operators.

“The pressure to meet client expectations can be high. This can lead to longer work hours, and in smaller firms that typically operate with fewer staff, many lawyers may find themselves with heavy or unreasonable workloads,” Sigley tells LSJ.

There’s also the mental side of things to consider. Sigley says she deals with a high number of lawyers who are “highly self-critical and operate with perfectionistic tendencies such that the self-drive is not sustainable”.

“There is no bandwidth of success, it is either right or wrong and this often results in over-investment in a task, self-doubt, or feeling like an imposter,” she adds.

Workplace culture another ‘key driver’ of overwork

Similar to some big firms, small practices can view long hours as a marker of dedication that “creates an environment where overworking is normalised or even glamourised”.

That is a point global consulting firm McKinsey & Co picks up in recent research looking at why, on a global scale, employee burnout – a function of overwork – is at a record level.

Across 15 countries surveyed, McKinsey found toxic workplace behaviour, conduct that may include overwork, to be the single biggest predictor of negative employee outcomes.

It argues that such behaviours are “heavily implicated in burnout” and says they correlate with “intent to leave”, ultimately driving rates of attrition at law firms. Alarmingly, the US-headquartered group claims that employees experiencing high levels of toxic work culture are eight times more likely to experience damaging burnout symptoms.

Those respondents “were six times more likely to report they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months,” the research found.

McKinsey’s work ties into the damaging health effects of overwork on lawyers. Academic research shows working long hours are linked to a swathe of health conditions including depression, hypertension, and heart disease. In the more immediate term it’s linked to issues like fatigue and disordered sleep. At small law firms, the scale of the overwork is unclear. That’s in part because, according Springfox’s Sigley, “spotting the signs of an overworked or burnt-out employee can be difficult if you aren’t sure what to look out for”.

While some signs of overworked lawyers are obvious – appearing visibly fatigued, stressed or overwhelmed – many signals can be harder to pick up.

For this reason, she urges small firms to be on the lookout for staff who appear withdrawn or quieter than usual, tune out in meetings, or forget what they were about to say at work. Other subtle indicators can include losing the thread of a conversation, or declining to turn on a camera during video calls. There’s also behaviours like eating lunch at the desk, not taking breaks through the day, and getting more irritable or short-tempered.

Sigley says overwork also correlates, somewhat counterintuitively, with employees who arrive early and leave late from the office, but have declining productivity and performance.

“It’s important for managers and leaders to be vigilant towards these signs in order to stamp out overworking and prevent more serious mental health issues among staff.”

All workers in small firms are at risk, the Melbourne-based expert warns says, commenting that “overworking is rarely ever restricted to any one role in an organisation”.

“Owners and managing partners, for example, are likely to face the brunt of overwork as they are not only managing cases but also the business aspects of the firm.

“Similarly, junior lawyers or associates may find themselves handling a wide variety of tasks but with less support from paralegals or admin staff.  Add to this, many are typically trying to prove their worth and may take on excessive workloads to stand out.”

Then there are those working in “high-demand” areas such as family law, criminal defence, or personal injury, where “client relations can be emotionally challenging”. In these areas, unpredictable work hours and urgent case matters may also contribute to overwork.

Changing mindsets

On potential solutions, leadership and wellbeing expert, Megan Dalla-Camina, advises that overworked lawyers, including those at small firms who don’t have budget to add extra legal and support staff, make behaviour changes in an effort to ease workload.

Top of her list is a mindset shift away from perfectionism, a personality type common with lawyers. Lawyers should “ditch perfectionism and adopt a growth mindset instead”.

To this end, instead of fixating “on excessively high standards and putting unnecessary pressure on yourself to go above and beyond”, Dalla-Camina urges a growth mindset.

This approach gives “permission to experiment, accept criticism, and build resilience against the feelings of failure and adversity”, taking the pressure off time-intensive perfection.

Asking for help – often easier said than done at small firms – is another tip. On this point, Dalla-Camina says it can be tempting when new work comes in to think “it’ll be quicker for me to just to it myself” or “my team is so busy I don’t want to burden them with more work”. But she warns this approach often contributes to overload.

“It may be fine in some situations but over time taking on too many responsibilities and an inability to delegate or ask for help is a recipe for burnout,” the CEO of consultancy Women Rising tells LSJ. “Asking for help is a muscle you can build through consistent practice. If it seems confronting at first, start with small asks.”

She also suggests keeping the phrase “be kind to yourself” top of mind at work. If an over-active, and critical, inner monologue is leading to difficulty delegating work or adding to long working hours, Dalla-Camina says “self-compassion” could be key.

“If you struggle with a harsh inner critic, it’s time to become more intentional about practicing self-compassion,” she explains.

“The next time you notice that you’re criticising yourself or engaging in negative self-talk, ask ‘what would you tell someone else if they were in the same situation? How would you treat them?’ Once you can answer those questions, it’s about turning that kindness and compassion inwards.”

For lawyers whose problem of overwork stems from being “people pleasers”, Dalla-Camina advises focusing on tying to be as honest as possible on capacity.

This, in her view, is extra relevant for female lawyers given people pleasing “is a behaviour that significantly contributes to burnout and one that impacts women in particular”.

“This can be attributed to both nature and nurture, as well as the double bind, supported by research, that women are frequently perceived as competent or likeable, but rarely both.

She advises: “Consider how often you say ‘yes’ to requests on your time without stopping to understand the impact it will have on your own work or wellbeing. This year, answer questions about your capacity honestly. It’s ok to say ‘no’, or ‘not right now’.

Away from behaviour changes, Malissa Clark, a US-based psychologist and expert on overwork, suggests assessing a firm’s culture as a starting point. This can take the form of a “needs assessment” that looks at areas of the firm in need of change, how much resistance there is to it, and determines the level of training and resources required for a reset.

After that, the University of Georgia academic advises businesses to run a “change experiment” in an area where overwork is worst, then learn from it, and iterate.

More broadly, Clark sheets home much blame for overwork to the 40-hour work week. This, she argues, means many people end up toiling for more hours than they’re paid to do.

“This idea of working to be the best employee, working even more than that to shine and rise above the rest – I think that is a horrible idea, it’s inevitably going to lead to burnout.”

At Australian Migration Lawyers, a Melbourne-based firm with around 20 employees, director Perry Q Wood stresses a mix of tech and face-to-face to keep a lid on workloads.

“We utilise technology to monitor caseloads, enabling us to ensure work is distributed evenly and no one is overwhelmed,” Wood tells LSJ.

“Additionally, regular reporting mechanisms are in place, providing management with visibility into workload distribution and allowing us to proactively address any issues.

“We hold check-in meetings every 48 hours with all staff, regardless of their location. These meetings serve as a platform for team members to discuss ongoing work, share updates, and collectively address any challenges or concerns.”

At the same time, Wood also sees his firm’s internal culture as driving healthy workloads. The firm “actively promote regular breaks, discourage excessive overtime, and celebrate achievements outside of work”, he says.

“We promote the establishment of boundaries around work hours and availability. We discourage after-hours emails or calls, unless in the case of emergencies, ensuring our employees achieve a better separation between their personal and professional lives.”

According to recruitment company people2people, long working hours in the legal industry could be linked to understaffing, with such pressures often intense at small firms.

The company’s Western Australia managing director, Kim Padmore, says internal research shows 46 per cent of legal firms says they’re either slightly, or largely, understaffed.  With personnel a pressing issue, Padmore says employees appreciate solid support from bosses on managing working hours.

“A lot of candidates that we surveyed said that was the most important thing for them in job is having clear feedback and guidance on what they need to achieve,” she says.

“That means having regular feedback channels so that if they are overloaded or burnt out or not sure on priorities they’re able to communicate those things.”

Giving workers at small firms more flexibility is also a popular move with stressed-out staff. According to Padmore, people2people’s research shows 43 per cent of legal employees plan to ask for more flexibility over the coming year.

“Obviously work life balance is a big one, as is opportunity to work from home,” she says.

“I think with some of the smaller firms, where they have cost pressures and employees asking for salary increases, those things can’t always be provided, but they can save them time on their commute.”