The End of Billable Hours?

The Wall St. Journal has published a story (subscription required) and some blog posts (here, here, and here) about the demise of the billable hour. I get a sick kick out of all the comments to these stories. There are so many lawyers who do not get the concept of efficiency, and think that all they have to offer is their time. They’ve really drunk the koolaid.

Some background: I edited the magazine of the Association of Corporate Counsel for a couple years, and I heard a never-ending diatribe by most members — the clients of BigLaw and every other law firm — about how much they loathed paying bills based on billable hours. Most in-house counsel started out as law firm attorneys, and they know exactly how bills get padded and time gets wasted.

Who knows, maybe their pressure will force firms to do away with billable hours as the primary method of billing. Susan Hackett, ACC’s senior vice president and general counsel, really threw down the gauntlet on the issue last May when she railed against the new associate salaries starting at $160K.

Even if billable hours go the way of the dodo, I doubt that law firms are suddenly going to turn into awesome places to work. There’s no doubt billable hours are a huge contributor to the miserable environment, but the core problem is that lawyers do not know how to manage. Here’s what managing is not:

  • Yelling at subordinates for mistakes minor or major;
  • Criticizing harshly and rarely if ever praising work;
  • Blaming other attorneys for your own failings;
  • Not assigning projects in enough time for associates to do them competently, particularly when you knew about the project but just never got around to assigning the work until the last minute;
  • Failing to give meaningful training and feedback about work;
  • Failing to treat colleagues with respect and compassion.

These behaviors occur every hour of every day in law firms across the country. This kind of horrid treatment is why so many lawyers are completely miserable. Are billable hours really to blame? Until partners decide to root out dysfunctional and plain old mean behavior by some of their peers, nothing important will change in toxic law firm environments. There’s lip service to that notion at some firms, but I never saw a partner booted out solely because he or she treated colleagues badly. If you have, please do tell. We’re all ears here.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and trainer who billed a lot of hours before she decided to get a life. You can reach her at jennalvey AT gmail DOT com.

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