Blog post | What does capacity mean?

If you’ve already started working at a firm or in a legal team, perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘capacity’ being thrown around already and you wonder what it means.

No it doesn’t mean mental capacity in the legal sense (although, in some ways it kind of does)… it is posed as a question to you as to whether you have capacity to do a particular task.

Here’s how it goes down:

Senior associate: “Do you have capacity to do this research task on [insert subject matter]? Its due tomorrow for a client.”

(Your brain: “I’ve already got four research memos due tomorrow which will take me at least 10 hours so I’ll be here until midnight doing those tasks…”)

You (through gritted teeth): “Sure.”

Capacity means your ability to get a task done in time. It is all about timeframe. It is a subjective term and depends on how many hours (or how late) you are prepared to work, and how you prioritise your work, life and sleep. It is the bane of every lawyer’s existence. Hours = time = money. That is why lawyers most often work quite long hours. There are a couple of reasons for this, but mostly because clients want legal work done urgently (often at the 11th hour thing or when the client has that ‘oh crap, we should get the lawyers involved’ moment), and also because of unrealistic deadlines imposed by courts and tribunals. Until clients and courts all agree not to impose impossible deadlines, or clients start to value the premium day working hours (rather than the work done overnight) - this is unfortunately going to be an ongoing problem. But we digress.

Unfortunately the capacity question can sometimes be a bit loaded because it is not really a question but a demand. How long is a piece of string, really? In your years as a baby lawyer, it can be difficult to answer it in a way other than “yes”. You might have capacity to do the task and be finished by 8pm, but technically you could also do another task after that, or come in early in the morning the next day, but you’ll miss the gym and that dinner you booked. See how hard this is? Unfortunately for you and for the restaurant you just booked, the answer will almost always be expected to be ‘yes’, unless you are already working beyond capacity on a big matter like a deal or litigation. And if you really don’t have capacity that day, then at least be able to say when you will have capacity again. Actually, a lawyer we know once did push back on the grounds of no capacity - and was promptly rebuffed with “well there is always after midnight.” Ouch.

Think about why the senior lawyer gave you the task. You were the best person for that job and that is why they chose you to do it. Also if you don’t do that task, and that senior associate partner now has to do it, so spare a thought about them. They’ve now got to stay till 10pm, but you can leave at 6pm. Now why don’t you help them out so you can both leave at 8? Happy senior lawyer = happy you.

However if you are unsure about capacity, ask yourself these questions to guide you to the answer:

  • How long is the task going to take?

  • How urgent is it?

  • What else do you have in your to-do list?

  • How busy are the other members of the team? 

  • What time are the other members of the team finishing work? 

  • What are the expectations of your team generally? 

  • Have you discussed this with a buddy, mentor or close colleague? 

  • What are the consequences if you say no, both for the team and yourself?

  • When will you have capacity again?