as law students, we are deeply concerned about the future of the legal profession. we see increasing billable hour requirements, a lack of racial diversity and gender equity, decreasing professionalism, and a more dominant focus on the bottom line. by expecting higher hours than ever before, law firms are jeopardizing the roots of the profession in assiduous service to our clients, community service, and justice.
the costs of the current system are widespread:
costs to clients
- unproductive work: working long hours adversely affects an attorney's ability to think critically and creatively and impairs a lawyer's ability to make fully reasoned and sound professional judgments.[i]
- a lack of racial and gender equity in firms despite the fact that clients have clearly signaled their desire for it.
- encourages inefficient work habits: maximum profits are obtained by maximum billing, even if that means unnecessary additional work performed. [ii] cloaked in the language of "zealous advocacy" is the reality that attorneys frequently produce or expand deliverables far beyond their usefulness to clients and judges.
- problems matching cost to client expectation: hourly billing is not predictable and clients only know the ultimate cost at the end of the matter. lack in predictability also impairs the ability to perform a risk/benefit analysis at the outset of a case before proceeding. moreover, the hourly billing rate does not necessarily reflect the appropriate value to the client. [iii]
- damage to the attorney-client relationship: clients generally want a matter resolved quickly, but lawyers are given every incentive to increase billable time in order to maximize profits. this detracts from our profession's tradition of lawyers serving as trusted counselors, harming the attorney-client relationship and ultimately the bottom-line.
costs to firms
- dangerous & potentially unethical incentives: tying bonuses to hours encourages attorneys to either work a harmful number of hours (leading to burnout) or unethically pad their timesheets. efficient and productive lawyers are penalized for low hours, while lawyers who work inefficiently or dishonestly can receive significant bonuses.[iv]
- costs of attrition: Increased associate departures, particularly among women, are being reported across law firms, with many associates looking to work fewer hours.[v] law firms, who have spent $200,000-300,000 to train and mentor each junior associate, have just lost significant human and financial resources. firms then have to pay additional costs to bring new attorneys up to speed, regain institutional/client knowledge, and build personal relationships.[vi]
- minimal incentives for new technology: lawyers and law firms have incurred significant expenses in obtaining new technologies that allow attorneys to work more efficiently and take more cases. the billable hour structure, however, encourages attorneys to use technology to extend their working time to home life and 'vacation,' instead of using technology merely to be more efficient during the work day.[vii]
- loss of business due to a lack of racial and gender equity
costs to attorneys
- widespread unhappiness: law firm lawyers feel stressed and fatigued most of the time, and believe that they must sacrifice fulfillment outside of work in order to advance in their careers.[viii] even assuming that only 15% of attorneys are unhappy[ix] - one of the lowest estimates out there – the legal profession faces a significant engagement and satisfaction problem. part of this is caused by resentment of double standards: associates (and a few partners) increasingly feel that the standards partners enforce and expect – more billables, at greater efficiency, at any hour – are not the ones partners themselves experienced when they were associates.[x]
- deteriorating mental health: "lawyers are working more, reducing vacation time, spending less time with family members, are prone to alcohol abuse, and face high levels of psychological distress." such unrelieved stress can "cause anxiety, inability to concentrate, shortened attention span, difficulty focusing on tasks, avoidance and burnout."[xi] more serious effects include depression, anger, exhaustion and chronic fatigue.
- quantification of practice: the quantity of hours billed is emphasized and valued over the quality of work performed – once a source of pride for the legal profession. hourly billing reports focus on mechanical functions rather than substantive progress.[xii]
- quantification of personal life: many attorneys, particularly but not only female attorneys, internalize the billable hour standards of the workplace, sometimes letting it become the standard by which they live their personal lives. but lawyers that view children's birthday parties, a social dinner, and other personal events as 'costing' them two or three hours away from work risk alienation and isolation from friends, family, and the community.[xiii] the constant pressure to think, "i could be billing" is deeply troubling to lawyers seeking a fulfilling personal life.
- lack of mentoring: midlevel associates are reporting less individual mentoring from partners: despite widespread attention to the issue, fully one-third of associates lack a mentor at their firm.[xiv] pressures on partners to bill and generate business force partners to neglect valuable supervision and mentoring of young attorneys.[xv]. this problem is particularly actute for female and minority lawyers.
costs to the community
- time famine: attorneys do not have enough time for themselves and their families, and have difficulty achieving a healthy balance between work and family life. [xvi]
- discourages pro bono work: a shockingly low percentage of attorneys meet the a.b.a.'s expected guidelines for annual pro bono commitment.[xvii] billable hours reinforce the idea that all time should be spent producing revenues for clients. even firms that count pro bono hours toward billable requirements often expect the pro bono to be done on top of 2000-2400 revenue-producing billable hours.
we recognize that law students have become part of the problem by focusing on paychecks and bonuses, while avoiding the tough questions about the conditions of working lives and associate satisfaction. but we are committed to focusing on the principles set forth below in our own job searches, and ask law firms to do the same. we recognize that these changes are not free: we are willing to accept reduced salaries in exchange for better working lives. in selecting firms to interview with, we will give strong consideration to those firms that have committed to these basic tenets for a renewed legal profession:
- a renewed and meaningful commitment to real, measurable improvement in gender and racial equity and diversity.
- to the maximum extent possible, firms should replace billable hour systems with transactional billing. this system is more efficient, less susceptible to pointless hours competition, and rewards creative legal work rather than time spent in the office.
- for many firms, shifting away from billable hours will take time or,
at first, appear unfeasible. reforms within the system can still address
many of the problems created by excessive billables. the first of these
is to link partnership with working hard, not working long: overwork does
not mean quality work. to do this, firms should consider the following
- work to reduce maximum billable hour expectations for partnership. there is broad consensus that billable hour escalation has become unreasonable, with up to 3000 hours expected of prospective partners. firms should replace an "hours culture" with a "quality culture." to start, they can move the partnership target closer to 2200 hours and realize it as matter of internal culture. and firms can end the incentives to overwork by de-linking bonuses from billable amounts, instead tying them to work product quality as other professions already have.
- implement balanced hours policies that work. high quality lawyers follow different paths in life. partners and prospective partners want and need to devote time to family and community. firms should reward these choices by adopting balanced hours policies that, without stigma, allow associates to work 80%, 70% or 60% of fulltime hours for proportional pay. the time-to-partnership should be extended for those on balanced hours policies, ensuring success based on work product, not life choices.
- make work expectations clear. at a bare minimum, law students and junior associates should know what firms expect of them before they select their firms. available information on hours expectations and hours worked is of low quality and widely discounted. firms should regularly disclose the actual median hours worked by associates on the partnership track. greater transparency will help both law students and law firms meet each others' expectations.
if firms genuinely commit to these reforms, we will see progress in restoring the sense of professionalism to law that so many attorneys feel is lacking. these small steps will make it possible for lawyers to more effectively and creatively serve their clients, to spend time with their families, and to serve their communities through pro bono work. firms that lead the way will be rewarded with diverse and engaged attorneys committed to their long-term success, along with more satisfied clients and reduced training and attrition costs.
law is a business, but it is also a profession. with these changes, law firms can both be more profitable and better serve their clients, communities, and the interests of justice. as young lawyers, we are committed to building a better profession, and look forward to realizing this vision with partners in the legal community.