It is a commonplace in the legal world that your firm, and presumably your clients, measure your worth by the number of billable hours you generate. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), partners in law firms are expected to log 2,500 billable hours a year, which amounts to working 50-60 billable hours per week.
Common practice, however, sometimes flies in the face of common sense. If your lawyer is billing for 60 hours a week, particularly at the absurdly high rates charged by large firms, then you should be seriously questioning the value you are getting for your money. According to Chris Bailey, the author of the book the Productivity Project, optimal productivity peaks at 35 hours of work a week. In fact, according to Bailey, studies have shown that after 55 hours a week, particularly over several weeks, productivity per hour approaches zero. Bailey, Productivity Project, at 97-98. Moreover, people chronically overestimate the time they spend working, so if your attorney is billing 60 hours week, you have to wonder first whether your attorney is padding the bills and second, even if not, what you are getting if you are billed for those 5 hours on the tail end.
The goal of every client should be to get the best result possible at the least possible cost. The question is not only how hard your attorney is working for you but also how well your attorney is working for you. Focus on the results your attorney is getting rather than the hours your attorney is expending, unless it appears that your attorney is billing you for excessive time to get those results. Remember, however, that legal work requires not only skill but diligence, and diligence should be compensated in the legal profession just as in any other occupation. But if your attorney is not working reasonable hours, taking breaks, and using his or her vacation, he or she should be. Otherwise, you can expect your attorney's performance to tank.
To be fair, the number of attorneys who practice in a way that maximizes their productivity, myself included, is probably vanishingly small. However, this week I am taking my four-day summer vacation amidst the clean beaches and wild horses of Assateague Island, where I will be slurping fresh, cheap Chincoteague Oysters when I am not lying in the sun. In four days, however, I expect to come back recharged and able to represent my clients more vigorously than ever.