Can fewer meetings make happier, more productive lawyers? It's a start

The boardroom is seen during the grand opening and media preview of the new Apple Carnegie Library store in Washington
REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

(Reuters) - More than 14 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers and law firm staffers are all-too familiar with Zoom fatigue.

But research shows meeting overload has long been an expensive, demoralizing problem for the American workplace. In 2014, for example, the Harvard Business Review broke down how one company's weekly senior-level staff meeting ate up 300,000 hours of executives' time in a year.

Amid growing concerns over lawyer burnout, some law firms are pointing to meetings as a key culprit. The U.S. branch of global law firm Dentons this week asked its partners to cancel their routine, non-essential, non-client meetings in an effort to free up everyone's schedule. Last month Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe announced a plan to tamp down on Friday meetings as part of a broader initiative to help lawyers and staff "unplug."

Lawyers aren't the only ones who feel as though their days are even more dominated by meetings since the COVID-19 crisis struck. A July 2020 study of workers in 16 cities from the Harvard Business School found that while meetings had gotten shorter in the pandemic, there were more of them and working days had been stretched out longer.

Canceling non-essential meetings gives people an opportunity "to switch off a bit," said Dentons US CEO Mike McNamara, who expressed hope that the firm's program will lead some meeting times to be reduced or dropped altogether.

It's a good first step, but just a first step, industry experts said.

"Firms looking for ways to lower the flame a little bit, to just turn down the temperature a bit and give people a little more breathing room is wise," said Patrick Krill, a former practicing attorney who now advises law firms on mental health issues.


When the pandemic forced lawyers to vacate their offices and work remotely, Dinsmore & Shohl "erred on the side of being overly communicative," said Robert Lucas, the managing partner of the firm's Chicago office. They had weekly check-ins, Lucas said, adding that he was penning weekly emails that had both firm news and personal anecdotes.

But the extra efforts Dinsmore made to stay connected tapered off by the summer, Lucas said. He said the firm's meeting schedules are now back at pre-COVID levels.

"I’ve always tried to pride myself on not having meetings just for meetings' sake," Lucas said. "If there's not a real agenda, it's OK to cancel a meeting."

Marc Benjamin, the partner in charge of Eversheds Sutherland's Chicago office, said the firm is flexible in terms of being on camera for a meeting. If an employee doesn't want their colleagues to see their kids in the background, or see that they're still in bed, they can keep the camera off.

"There's a recognition that, as long as you get your work done, it doesn't matter where you're at," Benjamin said.

But meetings are only a part of the problem, and canceling them is only part of the solution, multiple law firm leaders and industry consultants said. Working remotely means there's no physical difference between a person's living space and their working space. As a result, it becomes much easier for that person to work longer than they would have.

McNamara said law firms should be telling their employees that it's OK to be unavailable during part of the day, while Lucas said he has been urging his colleagues to take time off when they can.

Other law firms have tried to throw money at the burnout problem. Since mid-March, at least 71 law firms have announced associate bonuses, most of which range between $12,000 and $64,000, with others opting to go higher, according to a tally by Above the Law.

Bonuses are a short-term solution, said Krill, who compared them to a caffeine boost. He acknowledged, however, that some attorneys would be happy to receive bonuses as opposed to a day off.

Research has shown lawyers are particularly vulnerable to anxiety, depression and substance abuse. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already there, Krill said.

"You can think of it as driving a car that's a little bit wobbly or a little bit rickety," Krill said. "When you're on a relatively smooth road, it's fine, you're moving along. When you hit a rough patch, all of the problems suddenly become a lot clearer."

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.