Biglaw, Billable Hours, Old People

Why Americans Need to Work Less (Lawyers, You Too)

When I visited New York back in January, I stayed with some friends. When I woke up Saturday morning on the couch, my buddy and his roommate had already taken out their laptops and were typing away. I asked, “What are you guys doing today?” They both responded, “Working.”

I could not believe it. It was a surprisingly warm winter day. And my friends decided to remain cooped up in their literally windowless Manhattan apartment. Why wouldn’t they go outside? Go to park, or a bar for some day drinking.

But that’s America. We are always connected, always on call, and ignoring your BlackBerry for more than 90 minutes may be a fireable offense.

It wasn’t always this way. And there are some heretics among us who make a compelling case for a return to the 40-hour work week. Before you shoot the scruffy Californian, hear me out….

An essay in Salon from last week entitled, “Bring back the 40-hour work week” resurrects the argument that the schedule of super-long hours that many attorneys are accustomed to is not only unhealthy and stressful, but also straight-up inefficient and unproductive:

It’s been this way for so long that most American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

In addition to indirectly calling management at every large bank and law firm in the country “dangerously incompetent,” Sara Robinson’s article goes into great detail about the history and science behind the eight-hour workday (more than I have space for here).

I completely agree with her premise. Although I imagine some of you are lighting your torches right now.

Maybe some of our readers who work this type of schedule honestly enjoy it. More power to you. And many more attorneys probably feel like they don’t have a choice. But it’s worth making an honest plea to the people who run things that the paradigm needs to change. (I would also argue it’s worth holding out for a job that will allow you to continue to have a life, even if it means a big pay cut.)

No job is worth the loss of relationships with friends, your family, your girlfriend, or boyfriend. (If you work 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the reg, and you don’t think your personal relationships have suffered, I hate to be the one to break the news, but you are utterly deluded.) You can never get that time back, and and despite all the planning in the world, you never know what the future will hold.

As the poet says, “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often awry.” Crazy s**t happens. People die unexpectedly. You might get fired, or your entire firm might go under, no matter how hard you work.

This shouldn’t be any surprise to anybody, as we’ve covered all this before on these pages. But it’s not just me trying to tell everyone how to live their lives. There is data that backs up why working all day and all night is stupid from a business perspective:

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.

Let us translate that to people with desk jobs. When you stare at your computer too long, you start getting headaches. Carpal tunnel. Back problems. Health issues make people crappy workers. They have to miss work and go to the doctor, or they just work slower and less effectively because their bodies feel badly.

There is a reason 5-Hour Energy has become popular on idea of eliminating the “2:30 crash.” You get the mid-afternoon time warp because your body is telling you it’s time for a break!

Someone is inevitably going to say that I am just another millennial spouting “work-life balance” mumbo-jumbo. But that’s a bogus accusation. Nobody in my grandparents’ generation worked 80-hour weeks. They were too busy hosting cocktail parties and chain-smoking. And that generation was not slacking — it had to work pretty damn hard to rescue itself from the Great Depression.

On the other hand, maybe there is a generational component. Recent college graduates have seen their hard-working parents’ jobs and savings simply vanish. Even law school — the path to historically one of the safest, most respectable, and profitable professions — has proven to be a false hope for many people.

Small wonder then, that we have been labeled the “Go-nowhere generation.” How could someone like me reasonably believe that an ambiguous future is worth sacrificing my present? One should work to live — not the other way around.

Bring back the 40-hour work week [Salon]

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