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Working remotely can be a blessing and a curse. It allows lawyers to call, email or videoconference with the tap of a few buttons. But that accessibility can easily lead to exhaustion that can snowball into depreciating mental health.

The French government acknowledged such tech-fueled burnout when it passed a law in 2016 giving employees a “right to disconnect” as part of a larger slew of reforms to the country’s labor codes.

But to be sure, France-based lawyers are mostly categorized as independent contractors and don’t qualify for the right to disconnect. However, Paris-based Mayer Brown partner and employment and benefits practice group member Julien Haure said that although the law doesn’t apply to the vast majority of France’s attorneys, a lawyer’s practice can still manage some time to disconnect.

“We are not employees. This bill does not apply to us,” he said. “[But] it does not mean that this is not a topic that is considered by the law firm. I would say that it depends on the practice. For instance a corporate, arbitration, finance practice could require long hours of work and generally the lawyers work very long hours connected.”

In the employment law practice, Haure said they are “quite protective” that they don’t disturb their associates beyond their 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. office hours, but “as a partner I’m not disconnecting unless I’m sleeping.”

Haure also advises his corporate clients that being in compliance with the law doesn’t require companies to cut off employees’ corporate electronic devices after work hours. Instead, setting up an automated email in response to an after-hours message or typing “nonurgent” in the subject line of an email would suffice.

Leadership coach and consultant Deborah Feder said she wasn’t sure a similar “right to disconnect” law in the U.S. would be utilized by lawyers if they didn’t see their corporate clients adopting the practice.

“I think it has the potential to cause more issues and cause some opportunities for balance,” she said. “The opportunities are if other companies had this restriction on them then there would a culture shift over time that would allow for disconnecting.”

Feder noted, however, that “there’s a way to set boundaries that doesn’t need to be legally mandated.”

“I think that law firms, especially big law firms, struggle to [set] how available they are when [charging] high rates. Part of what you are paying for is access all the time,” she explained. “I don’t necessarily think that type of law would change the culture necessarily.”

Feder added, “I think it’s more the trickle down approach if other companies are saying to their employees you can check out and end work at the end of the work day … that’s a culture shift in an organization.”

Indeed, Big Law has previously taken cues from their corporate clients, from working remotely to dress-down attire in an attempt to mirror their Silicon Valley and Wall Street clients’ approach. Feder contends that the strongest motivation for change and to not check email at 2 a.m. is the client.

“As a service provider, [for] lawyers, like any accountant or financial adviser, it depends on the tone and message being sent by the clients you are serving. It’s reciprocal.”

 

Reprinted with permission from the June 12, 2019 edition of Legaltech News © 2019 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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