Legal Practice
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Is Being “Online 24/7” Good for Business?

Around-the-clock online availability has long been considered a “non-negotiable” expectation by many in the legal profession. But it begs the question - is being “online 24/7” really what it takes to be a successful lawyer? New research suggests it may actually hinder attorney performance and client service.

Around-the-clock online availability has long been considered a “non-negotiable” expectation by many in the legal profession. But it begs the question - is being “online 24/7” really what it takes to be a successful lawyer? New research suggests it may actually hinder attorney performance and client service.

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Date Published:
July 14, 2023
July 22, 2023

Every once in a while, a memo about life at the big firm leaks beyond its intended audience and causes consternation within the legal community. About ten years ago, a female associate resigned from Big Law because she felt she could not meet the demands of working at her firm while juggling a new baby. This woman was neither the first nor the last to feel this way or to leave the legal profession upon becoming a new mother, but her memo happened to get picked up by Above the Law — and spawned many viewpoints about whether she, her ‘deadbeat’ husband, or Big Law was to blame —  and more generally whether law firms should make structural changes (like better and broader parental leave) to support new parents.  

More recently, the leak was a slide deck authored by a senior associate at Paul Hastings listing “non-negotiable expectations” for associates, one of which was a “requirement” to be “online 24/7.” The slide went viral and sparked heated debate (see also here, here and here) about the appropriateness or perils — depending on your point of view — of such expectations.   

Is this latest revelation about life as a big firm lawyer any surprise? We’ve known for decades that traditional firms are intensely hierarchical: Your success as an associate at a large law firm is often highly correlated with your ability to tolerate unpredictable and often poorly-timed assignments from someone higher than you in the hierarchy. These “opportunities” to prove your commitment (to the firm? to the client? to the practice of law?) repeatedly ruin evening and weekend plans and have a tendency to engender constant monitoring of email and other channels of communication with the office. This lack of visibility and control over your daily life, coupled with intense competition and pressure to bill an inhumane number of hours year after year, is the price you pay for those alluring salaries. And at the end of the day, that’s a fine choice for some: Within the bounds of the ethics rules, lawyers are free to choose how they want to practice law and what environment works best for their success. 

But the question remains: Does a work culture requiring 24/7 availability lead to better outcomes? Does it lead to higher quality delivery of service to clients? Is being online 24/7 really what it takes to be a successful lawyer? Many people believe they need to work longer hours in order to succeed as a professional, and in the age of smartphones and remote work, that includes an expectation of near-immediate responsiveness at all times. But the research says otherwise. 

First, let’s start with whether working more hours leads to better results. A study from Stanford University found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours. Another study cited in the Harvard Business Review reached a similar conclusion. In that study, managers couldn't differentiate between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to, and there was no evidence that the lesser working employees actually accomplished less, or that the overworking employees accomplished more.  

What’s more, numerous studies show that overwork isn’t just a matter of diminishing returns, but actually hurts employees and their companies alike. A 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review points to a large body of research showing that overwork and its accompanying stress and exhaustion can affect “interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all things that the modern office requires — more difficult.” The research also shows that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems which obviously are harmful to the employees experiencing them, but also to a company’s bottom line, “showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.”  

Then there’s research about the effects of being online constantly, especially at night. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing in 2020, there is a large body of research showing that “blue light” emitted by phones, tablets and computer screens impacts our circadian rhythm or the body’s natural sleep-wake cycles, which, in turn, can lead to symptoms of depression. The article cites studies showing that blue light slows or stops the body’s release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, and ample research has shown that sleep is critical to our physical and mental well-being.  

Let’s face it: Overwork is grim, and none of this research comes as any surprise. Yet the notion that someone would have to be online 24/7 to be successful continues to define the culture at many large law firms. If constantly working isn’t the key to being a successful lawyer, then what is?  

A new breed of firms like Scale LLP are intentionally building a different kind of law firm culture that does not require “online 24/7” work. Scale’s lawyers believe that success and excellent client service can be achieved by working in highly collaborative, agile teams of experienced attorneys who all own the outcome for their clients. Reflecting on her decision to leave BigLaw, litigator Jamie Wells says that “having more flexibility on my own path and my own journey and really my own day is what prompted me to make the jump [from BigLaw] to go to Scale.”  

Of course, responsiveness to clients is critical to success. But in contrast to the poor souls who are expected to be online 24/7 waiting for an assignment that may, or may not, descend from above them in the hierarchy, Scale’s teams operate with an ethos of ownership over their work, agency over their practices, and collaboration with, and respect for, their teams.  This translates into highly engaged lawyers achieving high quality outcomes for their clients. For Wells, success is “Are you working with a great team? Are you delivering the best service to your clients? Are you doing things that make you happy?” At Scale, she has found that trifecta.