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Smartphones have made overtime culture ‘endemic’ in law, finds research

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Study released today blames phones and tablets for allowing partners to deprive associates of almost all sleep

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Depending on your age, they are either the curse of modern existence or its lifeblood — but now smartphones and tablets are being blamed for making lawyers work ever-longer hours.

A study released today into law firm working practices maintains that mobile devices have allowed partnerships to pile even more pressure on hard-pressed junior lawyers. The researchers write:

While advances in technology … permit more flexible working, including allowing men to take a more hands-on approach to childcare, they are widening rather than reducing the gap between those prepared to work additional hours and others who would rather not.

The findings come from the a study titled “Perceptions and Impacts of Working Patterns with in the Legal Profession”, commissioned by the Law Society of Scotland, which represents solicitors in that potentially soon-to-be-independent country.

The Scottish researchers found that a “culture of extensive overtime has become endemic across the profession”.

The report points the finger specifically at “push technology” — user-downloaded services that continually supply information from the Internet — for turning young lawyers into modern pit ponies.

According to the researchers:

Solicitors reported persistently receiving emails out of office hours, along with an expectation, both by clients and their firm or organisation, that they will respond instantly. Feelings of not being able to switch off and being permanently tied to the office were commonplace.

They continued:

Whilst there were advantages discussed in relation to the impact of technology, most individuals of all grades and working patterns highlighted the challenges and negative impacts this had brought to the profession.

But it wasn’t all moaning. Survey respondents acknowledged that various developments — such as video technology and the ability to access files remotely — had created efficiencies and more flexible working patterns. All of which encouraged higher rates of staff retention and a more motivated and productive workforce.

On the socially delicate issue of men taking a more active role in childcare, the researchers found:

Even when part-time working is not required, men with young families appreciate the ability to get home … to spend some time with their children and then, if required, start work again in the evening. New technology allows this flexibility.

Neil Stevenson, the society’s director of representation and support, highlighted examples of best practice in a bid to get the most from technology.

The Law Society man recommended that law firms introduce on-call systems, allowing solicitors to take in turn client telephone calls out of hours. Law firms should also provide “the right equipment” to facilitate home working; manage workloads so that neither full nor part-time staff were overloaded; liaise with part-time staff when organising meetings and training.

Finally, Stevenson aimed high and suggested that law firm partners should set examples by also working flexibly.

Commented Stevenson:

It’s evident that the huge change in technology and access has not always been fully supported by training, support, and guidance on working practices. Feeling constantly on call is now a key cause of stress in the profession, and may not even be what clients or employers really intend.

However, some commentators took the view that lawyers are just going to have to come to terms with being constantly at the beck and call of clients via mobile technology.

“We should not forget that we remain a privileged profession where the average salary is well above the national average,” pointed out Chrissie Lightfoot, legal profession technology guru and author of ‘Tomorrow’s Naked Lawyer’.

All people — clients and workers everywhere in their work and leisure lives — “live in a constant state of ‘on’”, she added, reasoning that technology promulgated “a social human global eco-system”.

Accordingly, Lightfoot said, “if clients expect and demand 24/7/365 service, we ought — as a very minimum — to acknowledge their communication immediately, and artificial intelligence technology can assist with this”. She went on:

Law firms need to get a grip. There is absolutely no reason why we lawyers ought to feel overwhelmed or stressed if the law firm and the individual lawyer use the technology smartly in a new human way, with machines and humans working together. Remember, lawyers are paid to serve the client efficiently and effectively.