Skip to content

The lights are always on

Feature
|Written By Robert Todd
The lights are always on
Illustration: Dushan Millic

Few people have observed the profound shift Canada’s legal profession has taken in recent years as closely as Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP chairman and CEO Scott Jolliffe. Called to the bar in 1978, he says the pace of legal practice has accelerated to a rate no one would have envisioned back then. When he started out, “You would send a letter out, and it would take several days for the letter to get there. Then they’d consider it on the other end, and a response would come back.” That lag time has now evaporated. “When a client asks a question, they want an answer,” explains the member of Gowlings’ international strategic advisory group. “They are expecting that you are attached to your cellphone or your BlackBerry, and receiving their message as they give it. It’s instant messaging on e-mail.” It also means lawyers now check their smartphones at least every hour during the day, and especially before going to sleep and upon waking. “That’s just the way it is now,” says Jolliffe.

The rhythm of modern legal practice has also been cranked up through the globalization of Canadian businesses, a process that picked up with a wave of foreign takeovers in the mid-2000s. Lawyers now deal with corporate legal departments in every corner of the world, often in varying time zones. It’s now common for lawyers to teleconference in the wee hours of the morning. Jolliffe, who was recently on an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. schedule for a Japanese file, acknowledges there’s simply no way of getting around these odd hours. “If we are a service profession, then we have to be able to adapt to the needs of our clients, and be responsive to them,” he says.

To meet that promise, Canadian lawyers are being forced to change the way they operate. The dividing line between work time and personal time has disappeared, and only those able to flourish within this new reality will survive in the modern era of 24-7 law.

Many lawyers have turned to technological innovation as a means of keeping up with the increasing client demands and volume of work they face. The results over the years have been astounding — Brock Gibson, chairman of Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, estimates the productivity of lawyers is now up to four times as great as when he entered the profession in 1983. Yet Donald Belovich, a corporate law partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Toronto, says this superior output has further heightened expectations lawyers face from both within their firms and clients on the outside. That has prompted him to join an expanding group of lawyers experimenting with new tools to keep ahead of the pack.

Like most sophisticated, modern firms, Stikemans has a searchable database that allows lawyers to use templates and precedents to a greater extent than ever before. They also benefit from an intranet filled with the firm’s previous work product and intellectual property, which cuts down on research time. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ability of technology to save time. “The hardware devices we use, from the BlackBerry to logging in remotely from Citrix to VPN [virtual private network],” have played a huge role in gaining efficiencies, he says. “We’re piloting iPhones, iPads, and basically looking at all different ways of getting connectivity and managing the flow of information.”

This type of technology allows lawyers to get all the work done “they’ve signed up for,” as Belovich says, in a seamless shift from personal time to work time. It essentially allows them to work wherever they are, fostering some bizarre settings for the completion of legal work. Take Belovich’s recent vacation to Italy: While on a 25-kilometre hike, he was able to whip out his iPad from a backpack, and stop on the side of the road to participate in a conference call. When that was done, he tossed the tablet computer back in his bag, and along he went for the rest of the journey. If not for that technology, he likely would have been holed up at his hotel for much of the day awaiting the call, or absent from a key meeting.

So although modern technology, in the form of new communications tools, have raised client expectations, it has also allowed lawyers to restore some balance in their lives and get things done in a timely, efficient manner. And there are always ways to use technology to greater benefits. “You can’t rest on your laurels,” says Belovich. “We’re constantly looking at ways to leverage the new technology and really redefining our work processes and our workflows, and looking at it and saying, ‘OK, this is how we’ve historically done things, how can we do it smarter? How can we use technology to do that?’”

While technology can certainly help lawyers work more efficiently in the face of ever-increasing volumes of work, it won’t necessarily increase the quality of their advice to clients. As Jolliffe notes, one of the biggest challenges lawyers face in modern legal practice is the danger of offering advice without adequate contemplation. Clients are looking to receive advice as quickly as possible, and some lawyers are too eager to fall in line. He urges lawyers to guard against this by instituting a practice of acknowledging receipt of an e-mail from a client, before pausing to process the question to craft an accurate response. It can be hard to take this time with other pressures bearing down, but it is necessary in order to prevent the delivery of unsound legal advice. “If it takes an extra half an hour, it’s worth doing it,” says Jolliffe. “Because once you give an answer by e-mail, it’s there, it’s fixed — you can’t change it. It’s not like an oral conversation where you can go back and add to it before it’s finalized. Just because we’re now in a world of instant messaging, doesn’t mean we should be giving instant advice.”

At the end of the day, part of the reason lawyers continue to thrive in the midst of technological innovation is their ability to distill information in a way computers cannot. Macleod Dixon LLP’s Calgary-based worldwide managing partner Bill Tuer notes: “In our business, we still need reflection time; time for judgment and processing, because that often tends to be part of the high value-add on very important matters; the human judgment that’s applied to the data.”

A big part of making way for that to happen is in the management of client expectations. But there are also strategies lawyers can use to make room for deep thinking. Jason Markwell, an intellectual property partner at Ogilvy Renault LLP in Toronto, uses a valuable technique: he attends to his detailed work early in the morning or after business hours when distractions are at a minimum. He also employs old-fashioned willpower when a pressing matter is likely to take up an entire day; he simply doesn’t respond to messages as promptly. “It’s very difficult to be focused on something complicated and at the same time responding to requests,” he explains.

Meanwhile, the story of Belovich’s mid-hike conference demonstrates another key threat of lawyers’ 24-7 work demands: burnout. There was a time not too long ago when lawyers could enjoy a mental break from their work when they returned home for the evening or went on vacation. Sure, it was always hard to get away from the office for extended downtime, but when a lawyer was gone, it was possible to get away from their work. The lawyer could completely disconnect from the office, especially when outside the country. Now they can get virtually everything done away from the office that they can while tied to their desk.

This suggests the new generation of lawyers may never know what it is like to experience absolute downtime. Is it just a matter of time before they hit the wall and crash, potentially to the detriment of both their firms and clients?

Tuer points out that not too long ago the prevailing wisdom in the profession was that people needed to work smarter, not necessarily harder. He says the overwhelming competitive nature of the profession and economy now forces lawyers to do both, raising the stakes exponentially. “Stress levels are higher today in the practice than they would have been five, 10, 20 years ago, by virtue of the nature of the demands and the fact that it is harder to get away from all of those demands,” he says. “Clients know how to find us these days.”

Many lawyers argue their eternal connectivity with clients and colleagues is a good thing — they’d rather deal with a brush fire while sitting on a beach in the Caribbean than return to the office to face an out-of-control inferno. But Tuer doesn’t buy that, and says most lawyers agree the disappearance of downtime is problematic, both personally and professionally. The solution, he suggests, may be the expanded use of sabbatical programs.


Macleod Dixon offers partners a three-month sabbatical for every seven years of practice. The firm helps lawyers completely disengage from their work during that period by covering clients’ questions and other ongoing demands that may otherwise keep them tied to the office from afar. “That is the expectation: that they’re not going to be monitoring or babysitting things while they’re away,” says Tuer. “The whole objective of the program is to have them be away and devote time to their hobby, their family, whatever.”

Julie McCarthy, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, suggests it’s important for law firms to recognize the importance of this type of downtime in their high-paced profession. Many studies have shown that organizations struggle when workers are unable to refresh their bodies and minds, she says. “If we don’t give them the opportunity to recover, then ultimately our workforce is going to be burnt out and less productive,” says McCarthy. She suggests firms offering lawyers a more balanced lifestyle operate just as effectively as those that foster a more competitive atmosphere.

At the same time, she says certain types of lawyers are innately better able to manage the psychological toll that comes with the non-stop nature of their work. Those with high levels of emotional stability can better cope with the inherent anxiety of this environment. Similarly, lawyers who can efficiently regulate their emotions are also more likely to succeed.

This means two lawyers facing the exact same challenges each day could perform at vastly different levels, based simply on their emotional makeup. “One of them may be much more effective, because the way that cognitively they’re reacting to these stressors, they’re able to disassociate themselves,” says McCarthy. That’s a phenomenon known as cognitive detachment, and the extent to which lawyers can separate themselves from the daily stresses of the job goes a long way to determining how they perform.

Another important psychological consideration for a modern lawyer looking to succeed involves the level to which one internalizes situations. McCarthy says it’s useful to determine whether one possesses an internal or external locus of control. Someone with an internal locus of control is more likely to take responsibility for all of his or her actions, and view events as a direct function of his or her own actions. That type of approach can lead to skyrocketing stress levels, creating self-disdain when problems arise. Conversely, lawyers with an external locus of control are more likely to see how factors outside their control contributed to a defeat. That makes them better able to cope with the high-paced, high-stress environment of modern legal practice. Thankfully, those with an internal locus of control need not despair. “These are behaviours and thought processes that can be trained, that can be learned,” emphasizes McCarthy.

Karen MacKay, president of Toronto consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., agrees a lawyer’s personality plays a major role in determining the likelihood of success in a profession where the separation of work life and home life has been shattered. Some people are list-makers — very organized and able to start tasks early and get them done on time, she explains. These people typically like to separate their professional and personal lives. “They like structure, and it can be very stressful for them if it’s not organized with a to-do list and they know what they’re doing tomorrow.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum — and people can be a blend of both — is a person who views work and play as interwoven. These people typically need pressure to prompt action, and perform well when the heat is on. “It’s fairly seamless: you can play a golf game, and if there’s a crowd on the tee ahead of you, you can check your BlackBerry, call a client, or check your voice mail, and get right back to the game,” she says. This second type of personality is better equipped to deal with the modern, 24-7, high-pressure work world.

Gowlings’ Jolliffe, meanwhile, acknowledges that individuals who are “too ponderous” — regardless of how smart they are — may not fare well in this environment. “The modern practice of law doesn’t have a lot of room for the answer that’s 100-per-cent correct,” he says. “It takes you 20 per cent of the time to get 80 per cent of the way there, and then 80 per cent of the time to get the last 20 per cent. So we’ve got to exercise good judgment on how much time we spend on something, because clients aren’t willing to pay for it.”

At the same time, MacKay believes it’s important for lawyers to take note of whether they are introverted or extroverted. While being around people energizes extroverts, introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries and amass enough energy to meet the demands of a non-stop, high-paced work environment. This really boils down to self-awareness, she says, and creating strategies to keep energy levels high. “If you know you’ve got a big meeting, and you know you can go for a run and you’re an introvert, perfect,” says MacKay.

There’s no doubt that self-awareness and personal improvement techniques will help many lawyers manage the grind of 24-7 law. But perhaps just as important is an inner drive to persevere in the face of constant challenges and pressures.

McCarthy Tétrault LLP Montreal corporate law partner Véronique Wattiez Larose is often saddened to see lawyers leave her firm because they’ve become discouraged by overwhelming demands. She urges lawyers to stick with it and seek tools and techniques to thrive. “It’s a daily challenge, and people should know that from the beginning,” she says. “But at the same time, you get your system together and it’s something you work on every day, every week, every month, and you’re constantly challenged with new expectations and new realities. But it can be done.”

She has honed her personal approach to the job over the years to meet her desire to be with her young family. She now reserves two blocks of time each day for them. If she’s working on a European deal, for example, she will typically work at home from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., before spending an hour helping her two young children eat breakfast and get ready for school. She’ll then commute to the office and work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then head home. She will then have dinner with her family, tuck her two-year-old daughter into bed around 7 p.m., and spend a few more hours working from her home office.

Lawyers must be extremely independent and organized to thrive in this setting. There is no legal assistant on either end of Wattiez Larose’s day to funnel tasks to. It’s also crucial to have strong teamwork skills, and a good rapport with junior lawyers — they’re typically the ones who are unencumbered by family commitments, and available to take on work during her two daily blocks of personal time.

It is still necessary to draw a line with clients in order to reclaim some personal time. Of course that can be hard for lawyers to accept. “We’re bred to exceed expectations,” comments Wattiez Larose. Nevertheless, she believes most clients understand lawyers are on more than one file at a time, which legitimizes the fact that an inquiry may take a couple of hours to respond to. Many of Wattiez Larose’s top clients know she is unlikely to deal with a question during dinner. She’s not bothered by those who don’t. “It would be legitimate for me to be in a meeting with another client,” she notes. “In that sense, clients expect you to be available 24-7, yes, but to the extent that they understand the reality that you have several balls to juggle at the same time, it does give you a bit of flexibility.”

With that in mind, Wattiez Larose also isn’t opposed to having a blunt conversation with clients. She’s been known to tell them there are two periods of each day when she’s unavailable, but for the other 21.5 hours, she’s all theirs. “I think that’s reasonable,” she says. “It’s kind of hard to argue against that.”

SPECIAL REPORTS



Save

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT