Imagine that you’ve ended work at six o’clock. Your caseload is under control, your inbox empty. You decide to cook dinner at home and bike to the park to meet a friend. Before you switch on the stove, however, your phone pings: the leader of your practice group has sent an email with feedback on a legal opinion you filed that afternoon. The revisions could likely wait until tomorrow, but your mind is now fixated on work. You order takeout, cancel on your friend and pry open your laptop.
In today’s legal world, this sort of scenario is all too common. “I’ve become troubled by what seem to me to be unreasonable pressures on more junior members of the bar,” says George Strathy, who served as the chief justice of Ontario and the president of the Court of Appeal for Ontario before his retirement in August. “A disproportionate amount of their personal time has been eroded by their work obligations.”
Earlier this year, Strathy published a paper on mental health in the legal profession. He tackled a wide range of topics, including the importance of mentorship and the prevalence of imposter syndrome. He also noted that lawyers email their colleagues “in the middle of the night or on weekends” far too often. To solve that problem, he proposed the following innovation: that law firms institute a moratorium on emails and phone calls after 6 p.m. and on weekends (unless it’s a genuine emergency).
With such a rule in place, a partner is welcome to mark up an associate’s work in the evening. But before passing along those notes, the partner has to ask: Do I have to hit send right now? Strathy is confident that, in most cases, the partner can safely hold off until the next day.
This is how law used to function. When Strathy entered the profession, nearly five decades ago, the internet hadn’t yet demolished the barrier between work and personal time. “Well into my career, you could basically assume that weekends and evenings were yours,” he recalls. The work never suffered. Clients didn’t complain. And lawyers were able to rest or spend time with friends and family.
If you’re a managing partner, take note: you can prohibit after-hours emailing and protect your profit margin. And for everyone else, the next time you write an email at 10 o’clock, don’t send it until the morning.