: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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The Death of the Billable Hour, Wishing Does Not Make it So

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Scott Turow notes that “[f]or too many litigators, our life increasingly is a highly paid serfdom—a cage of relentless hours, ruthless opponents, constant deadlines and merciless inefficiencies.” His culprit? The Billable Hour.

When I left the government for private practice in 1986, the hours expectation for young lawyers was 1,750-1,800 hours a year in the large Chicago firms. Today it’s 2,000-2,100—even 2,200 hours. And the only real outer boundary is that there are 24 hours in a day—and 168 in a week. Increasingly, if we allow time for trivialities like eating, sleeping and loving other people, it is clear, as a simple matter of arithmetic, that we are getting close to the absolute limit of how far this system can take us economically.

The death of the billable hour is of course, prematurely heralded. Even Turow does not seem to think the billable hour is disappearing any time soon. Rather than predicting its demise in the article, he concludes by merely wishing it would go away.

Scott Turow: The Billable Hour Must Die

The issue is one of incentives. While the client’s interest is in keeping costs as low as possible while still ‘winning,’ and the lawyer’s responsibility is to act in the interests of the client, the billable hour upends this little economic ecosystem. The lawyer – economically rational, rent-seeking, profit-maximizing mercenary that he is – has an incentive to bill as many hours as he can get away with. Clients are savvy enough to recognize the disconnect and billing becomes a source of suspicion and at times, contention in the attorney-client relationship.

So if we’re not counting off the hours of the day in sixths, how will we get paid? Ay, there’s the rub. Turow mentions one alternative, the “fair fee method” which is described as by a practitioner as “We do the work, and at the end we get together and agree about what’s a fair fee.” Gee, I can’t imagine any dispute would arise out of that arrangement. Hire that guy to write all my contracts. Turow does not seem to do more than sip from this kool-aid either, but neither does he make any other suggested alternatives. He hopes merely that somehow, we’ll figure out a way.

Some interesting responses from Daniel Solove at Concurring Opinions, Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice, David Giacalone at f/k/a, Carolyn Elefant at My Shingle.

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Category: law practice, legal careers


4 Responses

  1. I posted a little history lesson on the billable hour as well as why we may actually effectuate change in the near future. You may enjoy it.

  2. [...] I recent wrote about the billable hour here in The Death of the Billable Hour, Wishing Does Not Make it So. Susan Cartier Liebel left a comment with a link to her excellent post The Cockroach of the Legal Profession – The Billable Hour. The most surprising fact – one that many lawyers are not aware of I would guess – is that the history of the billable hour in the legal is a relatively short one. [...]

  3. [...] written on this subject in previous posts, The Death of the Billable Hour, Wishing Does Not Make it So and More on the Billable Hour, Charting Your Own [...]

  4. dustin sanchez says:

    luke u are the man, 4th on google wow

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