Whiling away the hours

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief
Industry insiders say the billable hour is hurting lawyers and clients alike, limiting innovation and creating a generation of desk-bound associates. But there are ways to mitigate, slightly, the toll these hours are taking.    

Since the 1960s, the pillar of the legal profession in the U.S. has been 60 minutes in length. But the almighty billable hour may not be long for this world. It’s no secret that lawyers (exhausted by pressure to bill) and clients (frustrated with high fees) are looking for alternatives like fixed or contingent fees and in-house counsel. 

In 2012, a grassroots organization out of Stanford Law School called Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) published a series of research-laden blog posts eviscerating the billable hour on behalf of lawyers and clients, citing inefficiency, overworking, overstaffing, long hours, and skewing of hourly rates as a “proxy for expertise” among other problems. “The billable hour structure, prevalent at nearly every law firm, discourages efficiency and innovation, destroys attempts at work-life balance, and drives women out,” the authors said.

The pressure to incrementalize and monetize time also hampers the ability of lawyers and the people who manage them to work on professional development, i.e., the qualities and virtues beyond expertise that help law firms get better. So how do lawyers make time to mentor young associates, foster innovation, expand their relationship capital or pursue new clients?

“There’s obviously tension,” says Greg Nespole, a partner specializing in securities class action at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP. “You want to train a young associate to be the best they can be, because it benefits both the associate and the firm. On the other side, you are duty-bound to accomplish the clients’ goals and remain cost-conscious.”

While Nespole’s team operates on a contingent fee structure, he agrees that billable hours can consume a lawyer’s life. To combat the time-suck, Nespole takes multiple tacks, which are individually small but collectively effective, and apply to managers everywhere, in the law and outside it:

1. Talk the talk. To everyone. Nespole encourages young associates to forgo an hour or two on the timesheet in favor of attending professional organization activities in their areas of interest, even if it’s outside their areas of expertise. This strategy serves multiple functions, all of them valuable and virtuously connected. First, such activities provide a mental break and social fulfillment—which serves a secondary purpose of building firm loyalty. Employees who feel invested in and nurtured by their employers are more likely to be motivated to build the business. Second, extra-curricular professional involvement is in and of itself a great source of business leads. We do business with people we know and like, after all.

2. Identify vulnerable constituencies. Nespole is especially encouraging to women lawyers, who are often forced to choose between racking up billable hours and attending to family needs. He encourages them, for example, to join all-female bar associations, not just because they build contacts but also because they provide a like-minded peer group with which to share problems and solutions.

3. Walk the walk. The best managers model behaviors. Nespole has generated a slew of business while coaching youth sports. That, of course, means sacrificing billable hours for, say, sacrifice bunting. And it shows colleagues and subordinates that his drive to make the practice of law less burdensome and more productive is not just idle chatter.

The Takeaway: Billable hours won’t disappear, but they can be tamed in small but subtle ways that improve work-life balance and encourage professional development, all of which build better firms.  

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s. She is a frequent contributor to this blog.

RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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