Aug 13, 2007
Scott Turow notes that “[f]or too many litigators, our life increasingly is a highly paid serfdomâ€”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 itâ€™s 2,000-2,100â€”even 2,200 hours. And the only real outer boundary is that there are 24 hours in a dayâ€”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 whatâ€™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.
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