Home Australian News Lawyers now have the ‘right to disconnect’. But will they?

Lawyers now have the ‘right to disconnect’. But will they?

Lawyers now have the ‘right to disconnect’. But will they?

When a young Sydney lawyer’s grandmother passed away, he found himself still receiving calls from his boss during scheduled leave to attend her funeral.  

“You still have to be checking your phone every five minutes until you go to sleep,” his colleague, who asked not to be named, told Crikey

Many lawyers work upwards of 50 hours a week, according to a poll run by legal news source Lawyers Weekly, with 13% saying they work 60-plus hours a week. 

However, newly passed “right to disconnect” legislation, aimed at protecting employees from work-related intrusions after hours, has sparked discussion among workplace lawyers about its practical and legal ramifications.

Greens leader Adam Bandt introduced the legislation in March 2023 to ensure employees will no longer be obligated to monitor, read or reply to their employer after work hours, apart for some things like shift changes. 

Last year saw the inquiry chaired by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission into the many overworked lawyers from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions working beyond their expected workload. 

The inquiry ruled on a new award to guarantee that lawyers would no longer be permitted to waive their overtime hours and would hence receive higher rates of pay for any hours worked before 7:30am or after 6:30pm.

Managing partner at Marque Lawyers, Michael Bradley, emphasised the importance of a work-life balance that law firms may lack.

“Work hours were always pretty nebulous,” Bradley told Crikey. “It does have insidious negative consequences particularly for well-being and mental health.”

Bradley started his law journey in 1989 and has seen the gradual dissolution of work-life boundaries influenced by technological progress.

“Because we didn’t have the internet and they couldn’t get you on the landline, you literally switched off. You walked out the door and you’re done.”

Never enough time 

For many young lawyers embarking on their careers, navigating the demands of the legal profession can be particularly challenging, especially when it comes to unexpected workloads. 

Given the reputation of the legal profession for its demanding hours and periods of stress, the additional apprehension of being on call late into the night and throughout weekends significantly affects the workload of young professionals.

A young lawyer in their first year at a high-profile Sydney law firm, who asked not to be named, described receiving emails at 9pm from their seniors. They said they were worried they wouldn’t be seen “as a team player” if they didn’t complete the requested tasks right away.

“An expectation is that if something is due at midnight, you are available to help,” they told Crikey

Another young lawyer, employed by the same firm, said management often called outside of work hours.

“The issues happen when there’s a bit of a lack of time management from the senior people above,” they said. “That time pressure gets squeezed on the juniors and all of a sudden work that you didn’t even know about is due within 24 hours.”

In a two-year period at the top-tier law firm, the young lawyer expressed that out of their cohort of 30 juniors, only 18 remain.

“The consequence [not replying after work] is you fall out of favour with your boss, you’re viewed as unreliable, you’re known as somebody who does not prioritise the work or takes it seriously,” they said.

Canary in the coalmine

Enforcing the “right to disconnect” legislation could be tough for law firms because legal work often requires immediate attention, even outside regular hours. 

Predicting when urgent matters arise or when clients need help is difficult, making it challenging to set strict limits on after-hours communication.

Bradley emphasised the need to establish fair rules and expectations in the legal field, rejecting the idea of strict 9-to-5 schedules as unnecessary in their industry. He believes that if an employer has problems in setting healthy boundaries in a firm then they may have bigger problems.

“It’s really up to us to set the norms, expectations, what do we expect from people, and what is reasonable.” 

The young lawyer believes big firms are not looking to hire more staff due to the fear of losing profit for the business. This will eventually lead to pressure on junior lawyers to keep up with heavy workload. 

“If you have more lawyers that means that there is less crunch on juniors,” they said.

Bradley emphasised the right to create a safe environment in fostering young lawyers. 

“The heavier responsibility is on us as employers to allow for a healthy workforce as one that has a life outside work and is able to maintain sensible boundaries.”


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