Someone has recently penned an obituary for the billable hour. I’m a lawyer, and I cannot tell you how much I wish it were dead, but I have doubts that it will actually die any time soon. Most law firms are stuck in the outdated mentality that they can only bill in this one way. And it is this lack of creativity and foresight that makes the practice of law unbearable for many.
From a theological point of view–yes, we should have a theological view of this as we do with all things–the billable hour creates a perverse incentive for lawyers as human beings.
In her article, Billable Hours and Ordinary Time (full article PDF here: billable-hours-and-ordinary-time), Cathleen Kaveny provides a damning theological discussion of the billable hour, essentially concluding that it is incompatible with a Catholic view of time and work.
I believe, however, that this way of calculating the value of legal work does more subtle-and more serious-damage to the attorneys forced to bow to its demands than that inflicted by overwork. The regime of the billable hour presupposes a distorted and harmful account of the meaning and purpose of a lawyer’s time, and therefore, the meaning and purpose of a lawyer’s life, which, after all, is lived in and through time. The account, which ultimately reduces the value of time to money, is deeply inimical to human flourishing. Because large firm life can press many lawyers to internalize this commodified account of their time, they may find themselves increasingly alienated from events in their lives that draw upon a different and non-commodified understanding of time, such as family birthdays, holidays, and volunteer work. The failure of lawyers to participate actively in their family lives and civic communities may not only be attributable to the fact that their heavy work schedules do not give them the time to do so, but it may also be that lawyers imbued with the ethos of the billable hour have difficulty grasping a non-commodified understanding of the meaning of time that would allow them to appreciate the true value of such participation. As a consequence, they may eventually find that work is the only activity that has meaning for them.
I read the article years ago and thought that I could balance work and life to avoid the parade of horribles that Kaveny mentions. But it’s unavoidable, I think. And having worked in a legal position that didn’t require billing hours and a few that have required it, I can say unequivocally that not billing hours creates a far more pleasant working environment–and makes practicing law enjoyable. Now, I practice under the shadow of the clock, balancing quality and efficiency–and not always doing that well.
The billable hour makes a whole industry irrelevant for lawyers. While businessmen may find certain time-saving devices useful (like this: michael-hyatt-shave-10-hours-off-your-workweek), it does not matter to a billing attorney. I may be much more efficient and shave ten hours off my week, but I’d better replace those ten with ten more billable hours to meet my quota.
As I noted yesterday, I’ve turned a corner. The billable hour will not be a way of life forever. When and how I will get out from under it, I don’t know. But I will. And I encourage you other attorneys to do so as well.