How do you solve a problem like the billable hour?

High-intensity, high reward?

Check out this article and then read on:

Why so many lawyers dislike their jobs

There are lots of debates about the billable hour, but I agree with the author that the pressure that is placed on young lawyers to bill ALL OF THE TIME places a premium on stamina and fails to recognize the hard mental work that lawyers should be doing. When I was at a large firm, the management was starting to place a lot of emphasis on delivering value, but, in my mind, it’s almost impossible to do that when your primary objective is to meet the minimum hour requirement.

The Harvard Business Review has identified three strategies that people use to cope with working in these kinds of workplaces:

Three Strategies

In our research we found that people typically rely on one of three strategies: accepting and conforming to the demands of a high-pressure workplace; passing as ideal workers by quietly finding ways around the norm; or revealing their other commitments and their unwillingness to abandon them.

Productivity is King

Of course, a firm needs some measure of productivity for its associates and the billable  hour is an easy measure of how much work someone is doing, but is it really reasonable to ask them to work as hard as they possibly can for 10+ years and then expect them to wake up one day and have developed a book of business at the same time? I think the brass ring of partnership just doesn’t hold the same sway over people anymore, so they’re more likely to give up than to buckle down and let the rest of their lives pass them by.

I think this is one reason why there are so many more small firms popping up offering lawyers the chance to do really good work without sacrificing everything in their lives. It shows that it’s possible to feel good about your work life and your home life. I also don’t think that it’s necessarily fair to call some of these places “lifestyle firms”. That really seems to have a derogatory connotation and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with people wanting to, you know, spend time with their partners and children and do great work.

I don’t know that I have a real solution at the moment, but I think that one thing that’s never allowed law firms to advance as much as they could have is the lack of business expertise within firms. Of course, there are ethical issues and things that have to be sorted out, but, for most lawyers, I don’t think that the business of law gets as much attention as it should. The introduction of non-lawyer ownership of firms is one thing that I think is sort of moving in the right direction, but it has it’s drawbacks. I’m really interested to see how it all shakes out in the next decade or so.

What do you think? What changes would you make to the system?


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