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An elderly billionaire’s comments about working long hours has fuelled a firestorm. Katherine Abraham quizzes members of the legal fraternity about the merits of working tirelessly in a profession notorious for its skewed work-life balance

When Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys advocated that Indians should work 70 hours a week so that the nation could better compete with its developed counterparts, the comments struck a raw nerve in the country and the elderly business leader found himself at the epicentre of a fervent debate.

However, Murthy is not the first to voice this idea. A similar demand was made in 2020 where to cover the losses of the pandemic, companies offered excess working hours as a solution.

The workforce at large is unsurprisingly opposed to the idea, with a November 2023 survey by People Matters, an HR-focused news publication, showing that a staggering 84% of respondents were against the idea of a 70-hour working week.

A total of 47% of respondents in the People Matters survey highlighted the strain on mental and physical well-being, while 45% expressed worries about the imbalance between work and personal life, with 8% noting a potential negative impact on their attitude towards work.

One of the first studies on the subject of the 70-hour working week by the Harvard Business Review in 2006 found that the “extreme-work” model may hinder the progression of real talent, especially female talent, to top positions.

Nevertheless, Murthy’s remarks hold particular relevance for the country’s legal profession, which is infamous for its very long hours and trying schedules. So we engaged legal professionals across diverse specialties to glean their perspectives on this contentious idea.

Although there was much division, consensus emerged regarding the arduous nature of legal practice, with professionals contending that what the law inherently demands is an intricate balance of legal acumen and efficient time management, revealing an interplay between existing work hours, personal well-being, and the pursuit of professional excellence within the legal landscape.

A house divided

Amid discussions on the 70-hour workweek, legal experts shared a resounding consensus: the legal profession is already dealing with colossal workloads.

The pervasive acknowledgment echoed a strong and undeniable reality that lawyers grapple with, navigating an industry where demanding caseloads often translate into an inescapable commitment to lengthy work hours.

“I can assure you that juggling diverse legal matters not only demands legal acumen but also effective time management,” says Tanvi Dubey, an independent lawyer practising at the Supreme Court of India.

Sharing Dubey’s thoughts is Arpan Acharya, assistant professor of law at Jindal Global Law School, India’s number one private law school in Sonepat, Haryana. Acharya says: “Lawyers, for the most part, already work 70-hour workweeks. They go home at 8pm on a good day and there aren’t too many of those.”

Arpan Acharya, Jindal Global Law School

A senior partner at one of India’s largest law firms, who chose to share his thoughts on condition of anonymity adds: “Considering lawyers … anyway have to be available 24/7, being professional service providers, we don’t really need a 70-hour structure to be in place.”

Highlighting the often neglected finer details, Acharya – who works closely with young law students working as interns at law firms – says: “In the bigger cities, the post work and pre-work commute also take up a significant amount of time. If we add two hours (an optimistic estimate) for commuting to the already gruelling 10–12-hour workday, we are already looking at a workweek well in excess of what Mr Murthy asked for.”

This is also where the contradiction begins. Sahil Kanuga – head of HR, employment & labour law at NDA in New Delhi – takes a detour from the phenomenon of long working hours, observing: “Nishith Desai Associates’ firm policy is to deliver the highest-quality service in the shortest time with the smallest teams. We do this by combining technology, culture and right processes.”

Ipshita Chaturvedi, a partner at Dentons Rodyk in Singapore, is skeptical. “A 70-hour work week would entail working 10 hours a day every day, without a break. Two distinctions may be made here – that of lawyers starting their own practice and those working in established law firms.

“If one is consumed by [the idea of] building a new business, then one can even work 100 hours a week, simply because the result of such labour is monumental,” she says. “However, those who ‘work for others’ will undoubtedly burn out from working extremely long hours, since the commensurate monetary reward is not good enough and certainly cannot replace the self-care a person deserves.”

Narayan Kedia, vice-president legal at India Bulls Group Mumbai, says: “The number of hours does not hold any value if you do understand the liability of your work, and the accountability you share towards your client, which at times may require you to work beyond 70 hours, and on some days it may be much less than that.”

Ranjana Bharti, a former professor at Galgotias University who serves at the Noida district and sessions court says: “An advocate usually works somewhere in between 15-17 hours per day. Even if we take 16 hours per day it accounts for nearly 90-96 hours a week, which may vary. As a practising advocate, working 70 hours a week is okay for me.”

Clearly courtroom practice and corporate practice seem to be equally challenging in terms of the workload. But does a longer workweek encourage and boost productivity?

Long hours and productivity

With a burgeoning discourse surrounding work-life equilibrium, senior partners underscore the importance of fostering environments that are conducive to sustainable practices.

India Bulls’ Kedia emphasises a more humane element to the debate. “The initial years of work life and the right amount of work set the stage for years to come for any junior lawyer or an intern.”

Tanvi Dubey, Supreme Court of India

While acknowledging the demands of the legal profession, there’s a prevailing sentiment among seniors advocating for a moderate and nuanced approach to cultivating the next generation of legal professionals amid evolving workplace dynamics.

Kedia says that while there is no particular definition for what quantum of work is right, “as seniors we should be compassionate towards juniors and should definitely make an effort to explain to them the relevance and nuances of the allotted work, and the practice area. The idea of contribution and compassion limits the concern around working long hours or managing tasks at hand.”

Not all chose the black and white approach. The senior partner at a major law firm in Delhi shared a view on the grey area of this debate. “I wouldn’t deny that [junior lawyers are made to work long hours], but they get rewarded handsomely in terms of salary when you compare it to other vocations. It’s also to do with how the entire industry works, and the demands of the clients that law firms cater to.

“There’s so much competition in the legal industry that if one firm is not delivering as per client’s needs, there are other firms ready to go that extra mile, which stresses, then eventually percolates, to the junior most levels.”

But what about smart work versus hard work? “Times have changed. Hours worked in isolation are a misnomer. Productivity and smart work are critical,” says NDA’s Kanuga.

“The practice of law being a highly challenging and competitive profession, there are no shortcuts to success here. Not only does the amount of time spent hard at work matter, but also the sheer quality of such time; both combined contribute to growth, success and credibility in the profession.”

Chaturvedi’s thoughts contrast with her contemporaries. According to her, there is no real correlation between productivity and long work hours. “Six out of the first 10 countries with the world’s highest GDPs are European. Some of these countries – Netherlands, Norway and Denmark for instance – have the lowest working hours globally.

“Productivity has nothing to do with long working hours. Productivity comes from a restful mind that is able to think creatively and critically, which solves problems, identifies new opportunities, and helps in prioritising important tasks from unimportant ones.”

However, while some companies promote a work-life balance, others hesitate for fear of deterring the ambitions of those who thrive on high-pressure environments.

Ranjana Bharti, Galgotias University

“Unfortunately, in many law firms, burning the midnight oil has become a norm and a parameter for determining ‘merit’, especially when it comes to juniors and interns,” laments Nipasha Mahanta, who specialises in HR, employment & labour law at NDA in New Delhi.

Jacqueline Aikin, a partner at JCSS Law in Pune, counters: “I think junior lawyers and interns need to spend their foundation years learning as much as they can, but in a smart and constructive manner.”

Chaturvedi adds: “I would focus on proactiveness and willingness to do well at that level so as to build a strong foundation, but keeping their best interests of health, family and other personal priorities in mind. Its quality over quantity.”

Acharya says further: “While a compact like this [70 hour working week] may not have the sanctity of a statute, it may be the first step towards labour laws that are humane, and that do not demand one to sacrifice their health and relationships for professional growth. “It makes more sense to speak of a compact between law firms, senior litigators and bar associations, to pledge that they will not work beyond certain hours” in order to “avoid a race to the bottom simply to satisfy deadlines imposed by clients”.

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