Billable Hours Pressure Tops List of Stress Factors in Legal Profession

The dynamics of legal work -- from client demands to time-sensitive deadlines and caseload pressures -- can regularly cause an unusual amount of intensity and a heightened sense of urgency. Yet, as the challenge of retaining top talent within today’s competitive business environment moves to the forefront, managing partners, supervising paralegals and legal administrators may want to pay close attention to the stress their legal teams are experiencing.

One-third (34 percent) of lawyers said billable hours expectations and long hours contribute the most to job-related stress. Meeting client expectations ranked second (30 percent).

Recognizing what triggers workplace anxiety is an important first step but legal managers also need to work to develop ways to mitigate sources of stress in the law office environment -- before they negatively impact employee morale, productivity and client service.

If you’re a manager assigning work, listen to your team members when they ask for assistance and rebalance workloads as needed. Here are several legal practice management tips for your consideration:

Set clear expectations. Miscommunication and/or misinterpretation about responsibilities frequently leads to frustration, inefficiency -- and, ultimately, unnecessary stress. This is especially true when everyone's working full-throttle and effective communication can often take a backseat to other priorities. While you don’t want to micromanage, give comprehensive direction on the front end -- including defining roles, establishing priorities and setting expectations for the completion of assignments. Taking the time to do this upfront will save everyone a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

Offer autonomy. Once your employees have a clear understanding of their responsibilities on a project, give them the flexibility to determine how best to carry out their assignment. Balance this autonomy with support by creating an environment in which employees feel they can always come to you with problems or questions.

Encourage balance. Long work hours may be essential during peak caseloads but while deadlines need to be met, you don’t want top performers to burn themselves out or resign. Encourage your employees to use their vacation days between peak project times and to take time off for personal or family commitments -- and set the example by doing so yourself.

Be alert to signs that your staff is feeling overwhelmed and take steps to alleviate the pressures that they're feeling. Ask your employees for their input as well. Just knowing that you’re concerned about how stress is affecting them may be a relief. But working together, you should be able to find strategies that will benefit your entire team.

Not only can reducing stress levels among workers help maximize job satisfaction and reduce attrition, it can also help to increase productivity and improve corporate culture. And it makes good business sense from a legal practice management and financial perspective since the costs associated with recruiting and training new team members often can be high. 

What workplace policies or legal management practices does your law firm or company have in place to reduce job-related stress?