• Law firm partners’ working hours increase to 55 ¾ per week from 50 ¼ in 2013/14
  • Surge in office hours driven by new business opportunities and Big Four competition
  • Presenteeism at junior levels on the decline as strong revenue streams brings confidence over job prospects

Law firm partners in the UK now spend 263 more hours in the office every year than they did just two years ago – according to the latest research from specialist legal and compliance recruiter Laurence Simons.

This is equivalent to an additional six and a half weeks in the office every year based on a typical working week of 40 hours.

The research found the number of hours partners work each week has increased by 2 ¼ hours since 2014. And compared to 2013 partners are working an extra 5 ½ hours each week. The extent of these increases from 50 ¼ hours in 2013/14 to 55 ¾ in 2015/16 mean that partners in particular have seen their working hours spike over the last two years.

Hours worked by partners in law firms, 2013/14 to 2015/16
Weekly50 ¼53 ½55 ¾
Fig 1. Average hours worked by partners have been steadily rising – Laurence Simons
Fig 1. Average hours worked by partners have been steadily rising – Laurence Simons

Laurence Simons says new business opportunities for law firms are on the up due to the increase in demand for legal services, which in part explains the reason partners are putting in this additional time. Over the past 12 months, revenues at the biggest law firms have been on the up. According to research1 from Deloitte, the UK’s 10 largest law firms grew their revenues by 6% over the past 12 months to October 2015, while those ranked 11 to 25 increased their revenues by 2%. After a tumultuous time during the recession the fortunes of UK law firms are improving – and partners are doing their upmost to capitalise on new business opportunities. Laurence Simons anticipates revenues to continue on this upward trajectory. However, the increase in new business comes at a time when the legal sector has been liberalised to entrants who may now operate as Alternative Business Structures.

Clare Butler, Global Managing Director at Laurence Simons, commented: “Law firms have been well placed to take advantage of the greater demand for legal services that increased business activity has given rise to, which has provided partners with plenty of work. New business opportunities are ripe for the picking but lawyers will also be looking over their shoulders since the Legal Services Act, which has opened up the sector to increased competition.

“Since this liberalisation, the senior players at law firms are having to fend off competition from newly formed Big Four accountancy firm legal teams. Partners have been fighting back by nurturing current client relationships and seeking out new opportunities and will continue to do so. Despite this change we predict the legal sector will remain strong – for example, the Magic Circle has retained its presence and prestige notwithstanding stiff competition from the USA in recent years.

“On top of this, finance departments are hawkishly looking at the balance sheet as they seek to build leaner and meaner firms leaving little room for high earning partners who aren’t bringing in fees. With their performance under intense scrutiny, it is little wonder partners are firing on all cylinders.”

Despite partners’ increasing hours, just 46% of all lawyers questioned by Laurence Simons said putting in long hours is essential to getting to the top of the profession – with the majority saying that working long hours isn’t necessary.                                                                                                                                                     

This reflects a trend of lawyers at the most junior levels working fewer hours, now 46 ¾ hours per week for a junior or newly qualified lawyer – in 2013/14 they worked 47 ½ hours. Laurence Simons says these findings point to a decrease in the trend of presenteeism, which shows a change in attitude over the last two years. Juniors were previously worried about job losses but now they feel confident about their futures. 

Fig 2. Graph showing changes in the average hours worked by lawyers, 2013-16 – Laurence Simons

Clare Butler continued: “While the results of Laurence Simons’ research clearly show lawyers, and partners in particular, work longer hours than the average person, lawyers at the more junior levels are putting in less ‘face-time’. Redundancy no longer looms in their minds and given the ongoing war for exceptional talent, A-players know they could secure a new role without too much difficulty if their current position isn’t satisfying their personal and development needs. Presenteeism is on the decline.”

Beyond the legal world

The average number of hours worked by lawyers across the board was 48.2 per week in 2015/16 – 5.2 hours more than the average accountant (43 hours per week) according to accountancy recruiter Marks Sattin (also part of the FiveTen Group). This equates to just over an extra hour per day, or an extra 244 hours per year.

Clare Butler concluded: “The lines between the professions are becoming blurred as clients start to prefer the services and convenience of a single entity which can provide multiple services, which is why the Big Four legal departments are starting to look desirable. The hours put in by lawyers at all levels are significantly higher than those of accountants, especially when you scale this up to an entire year. Accountants are innovating, but lawyers aren’t going out without a fight, and we may see accountants working increasing working hours throughout 2016 to make up the gap.”

Current professional working hours

Fig 3: Lawyers are working longer hours than accountants to fight off competition