The first cracks in the billable hour wall began a couple years ago, but they were one-off kinds of cracks that seemed to come and go, in a short flash of controversy.
Now the cracks are unifying behind a concern that is animating debate with a new energy that is thoroughly documented, and prominently featured in report recently published by the New York State Bar Association. I speak, of course, about lawyer wellbeing-- a very real concern that is immediate, incredibly destructive and to which the billable hour is total anathema.
Sure, alternatives to the billable hour need to be examined, analyzed and tested before being put into practice, but it's a metric that has wreaked havoc on the women and men in the legal profession for years, and is a red light that can no longer be ignored. The profession needs a bit of basic traffic instruction: Stop. Look. Listen!
The billable hour pendulum has been swinging for decades, in the direction of financial benefit for law firms, and particularly equity partners, but it's time to recalibrate-- the health of lawyers demands that we change the way the business of law is managed and administered. More quietly (but no less urgently), clients are also questioning the relationship between the billable hour and the basic notion of value.
One might begin addressing the first concern by stating the obvious: Lawyers are human beings-- not fungible goods that can be traded, or treated, like a simple commodity that is measured by weight, or miles-per-gallon-- or time increments. There are plenty of folks who repeat in rote fashion, the seemingly sensible mantra that law firms need to be run like a business, but really? Are lawyers to be treated, and regarded the same as widgets?
For as long as I can remember, the legal profession has insisted that it be self-regulated. Fair enough, but when will self-regulation be tempered with a dose of self-respect? It's simply not possible to have it both ways, and the time has come to recognize the truth-- even my grandson can grasp that much.
And as to the second concern (client discontent), a renewed commitment to providing value-- as opposed to maximizing profit-- would go a long way toward mending that fence. It would also radically diminish the number of grim lawyer jokes.
The opportunity to turn a growing liability into a new and invigorating positive, is dangling right in front of the legal profession-- let's grab it!