How Daylight Saving and Billable Hours Are Alike

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It’s the first workday of Daylight Saving Time (note it’s Saving singular!), and I’ll bet you’re feeling perky. Um, not. DST really messes with our circadian rhythms, takes us out of sync with our environment, and consequently impacts our work efficiency. File that under ironic, since DST is supposed to be about increased efficiency (more on that in a moment).

blurred clock face close up
The clock is ticking on the demise of billable hours.

In fact, nearly all the rationales for DST are pretty much crap, when you look at the data. Kind of like all the theories behind why law firms need billable hours to function. Unlike DST, though, which only happens twice annually, billable hours happen daily, and screw up people’s lives daily.

And the effects of billable hours linger even after you leave the billable hours world for real life. Trust me on this. A decade-plus out of the hell that is billable hours, and I still have a hard time doing work that doesn’t directly lead to invoicing.

Why Daylight Saving Time Is Dysfunctional

But first, a small rant about DST. Parents with young children and people with pets or livestock know how disruptive this forced schedule change is. Kids are cranky and unruly when their sleep patterns get disturbed. Come to think of it, so too are grown-ups, whether or not they have children. Pets glare (if they’re cats) or look at you with bewilderment (if they’re anything else) when they get fed and walked off schedule. It makes no sense to them.

And all those arguments about how DST saves money from less energy usage? Bogus. The Department of Transportation in 1975 conducted a big study that supposedly established the energy savings of DST, of 25% due to decreased appliance and lighting usage in the evenings. But the next year, in 1976, the Bureau of National Standards found the efficiency savings were negligible.

It turns out that the 1976 study was more correct, if Indiana’s experience demonstrates anything. Most of that state—84%—was not on DST until 2005. Then, falling for the seductive siren call of supposedly $7 million savings in electricity costs, the state changed over to DST.

Since the switchover, University of California—Santa Barbara researchers have found that Indianans actually spent $8.6 million more each year because of Daylight Saving Time, and increased emissions came with a social cost of between $1.6 million and $5.3 million per year. That’s right, in cash alone Indianans are paying out more than the amount they expected to save. Yikes. The theory is that widespread use of residential airconditioning is to blame.

So we have a Daylight Saving system which costs the country more actual cash, plus inflicts some pretty high social costs as well. But hey, at least we get longer summer evenings, right? So worth it. Yeah, kinda reminds me of law firms and the sacred billable hour.

Law Firms, Acting Like Dysfunctional Factories

It’s no secret that the billable hours system produces a boatload of seriously bad inefficiency side effects:

  • creating huge incentives to overwork rather than figure out how to work smarter,
  • pissing off clients who get billed essentially for training young associates, because
  • meaningful, useful training from experienced lawyers is not incentivized, plus the system
  • overworks and thus taxes attorneys, who then cannot work efficiently and effectively, let alone happily (which also feeds into #2, pissing off clients who suffer the resulting sloppy work)

Of course, those are the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to add more in the comments.

If law firms were factories that produced widgets, billable hours might make sense. Yet I suspect the notion that their legal acumen is a fungible commodity offends most lawyers, particularly BigLaw partners and senior associates (cause they’ve drunk the koolaid). What BigLaw clients, particularly, are paying for is expertise and judgement—they’re paying for the quality of thinking, not the act of thinking. Still, law firms persist in measuring the worth of their product like they’re producing widgets. Crazy.

The only thing billable hours are really good for is generating cash. Ah, there it is again, exalting money over all other values, when most lawyers in the system loathe the side effects and suffer terribly from them.

This dysfunctional system has been broken for 20+ years, really, but only now are billable hours are under heavy assault from clients who are sick of being bilked. Or who are just cheap.

Between the hatred of billable hours by clients and by a great number of lawyers who hate toiling in the billable hours salt mine, plus of course the pressure of globalization/outsourcing, I’ll go out on a limb a teeny, tiny bit and predict that in 10 years, the billable hour will be escorted firmly to the exit doors in most law firms. Sooner in smaller firms.

Now, if we could just say the same for Daylight Saving Time. Not sure if an act of Congress is easier or harder to achieve than changing law firm culture. What do you think?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who usually writes about how unhappy lawyers can find their right work and enjoy their life and career again. Today, she’s just ranting. Join the rant or sign up for a discounted sample coaching session by emailing Jennifer at

One comment

  1. Billing time in 0.1 hour increments is extremely painful.

    It always took me about 0.5 hours to get my time straight. Sometimes, it would take 0.8 or 1.2. I would throw my timesheets in a pile and ignore them for as long as I was able to ignore them. Ultimately, my bonus ended up getting docked for failure to timely report my time.

    This bothered by wife more than me. I actually hated reporting time more than legal writing, which is saying something.

    I don’t bill hours these days. If I’m litigating an ERISA (loser pays) case, I just use the “best guess” system to get close to the proper amount of time. The “best guess” system isn’t my phrase. That was a phrase coined by the local federal judge when confronted with this unique and low-stress, albiet somewhat inaccurate, system for reporting time.

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