Revealed: The extreme working hours of big-paying US law firms in London

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By Aishah Hussain on

Some junior lawyers are finishing work after 11pm most nights

Junior lawyers at some US law firms in London are averaging 14-hour workdays, exclusive Legal Cheek research has shown.

The data, derived from our annual survey of over 2,500 trainees and junior associates at law firms in London and the UK, shows that lawyers in the City hubs of some US law firms are grinding it out far longer each day compared to their peers at magic circle and other UK-headquartered firms — with the shift to remote-working only serving to ramp up their working hours.

Kirkland & Ellis rookies reported the longest hours of any law firm in the country for the third year running. They start work on average at 9:14am and finish close to midnight at around 11:28pm. That’s over two hours later than those working at most magic circle firms, and a notable uptick on the average hours recorded by Kirkland in last year’s survey (9:28am to 9:46pm), when rookies had spent most of the year in the office before the pandemic hit.

Juniors at other US firms in London also report late finish times, as can be seen in the below table. Those working at Ropes & Gray and Weil finish work well past 10pm, according to our figures, whilst juniors at Latham & Watkins, Goodwin Procter, White & Case, Cleary Gottlieb and Paul Hastings clock off on average after 9pm each day.

Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2021-22 — average start work and finish times

Law firm Average start time Average finish time
Kirkland & Ellis 9:14am 11:28pm
Ropes & Gray 9:20am 10:51pm
Weil Gotshal & Manges 9:46am 10:17pm
Latham & Watkins 9:16am 9:48pm
Goodwin Procter 9:38am 9:45pm
White & Case 9:01am 9:36pm
Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton 9:29am 9:16pm
Paul Hastings 9:29am 9:13pm

The full hours data across the 100 surveyed law firms will be published later this week

Lawyers across the City experienced an increase in work as a result of the pandemic, particularly in private equity, which is a major practice area for elite US outfits and has contributed to this year’s record-breaking financial results.

For example, the PE boom reportedly saw Kirkland’s global revenue edge towards $5 billion (£3.6 billion) and partner profits reach an eye-watering $6.2 million (£4.5 million).

Responding to our survey, which was carried out at the start of this year, around the time of the third national lockdown, one junior lawyer at a US firm said, “the hours are long and Covid-19 has made this especially worse with the post-pandemic boom creating huge deal flows and competing client expectations”. They added:

“Work from home has created a ‘work/life blur, rather than balance'”.

NEXT WEEK: The November 2021 UK Virtual Law Fair

This sentiment was reflected by other junior lawyer respondents.

“[My] work/life balance has been totally eroded by Covid-19 and working from home,” pitched in another trainee. “Pre-covid, while there were of course busy periods, I would generally log off and leave the office between 7-9pm, and weekend working was a rarity. Now, finishing work before midnight is unheard of during the week, and weekend working is a regular occurrence.”

“WFH [work from home] life has also meant that with nothing else in our diaries, the default thing to do has just been to work and there’s been no shortage of work to fill up the time,” another trainee added.

A red hot market coupled with no business travel or commute to the office to break up the work day and little oversight from seniors as to when they clock off, left juniors feeling “like we’re on the clock 24/7”, although it was acknowledged that “the flow of deals often means you will have downtime in between heavy spats of work.”

The findings can also partly be explained by the fact that New York (where these firms are usually headquartered) is five hours behind London and often require support later in the day from UK colleagues.

There have been a wave of junior lawyer pay rises reported on over the past year, with newly qualified (NQ) salaries at US law firms in London toppling over £150k. There have also been reports of firms awarding Covid and other discretionary performance bonuses “to keep us sweet”, in the words of one trainee.

The billing targets at US firms tend to be higher than at others, as shown in our 2022 Firms Most List. And we’re told if rookies at one firm were considered to be “under capacity” in terms of billing targets, that they’d get “ripped into corporate M&A deals”, regardless of what seat they were in. In another instance, one trainee said they billed “400+ hours in a month”.

A full breakdown containing 100 UK law firms’ average start work and finish times will be published later this week.

Struggling with the stress of work? Contact LawCare via its helpline or live chat

NEXT WEEK: The November 2021 UK Virtual Law Fair

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