Dangerous hours

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Like anyone who’s served time in an office cubicle, I find great wisdom in your average Dilbert strip. A recent edition showed the employees mocking the boss’s mantra that “Change is good.” “Why don’t you triple our pay?” they ask. “Why don’t you work for free? Or would it be better to admit that change can be very bad?”

One of the objections to abandoning the billable hour has long been the lack of legitimate alternatives. But there are now many of them, adaptable for various types of practices, clients and files. Most importantly, leading members of the profession are starting to openly admit the billable hour’s limitations.

Why has it been so hard to move away from a system that neither clients nor lawyers particularly enjoy? Maybe because the billable hour renders lawyer revenue predictable and easy to compute — appealing to many law firm financial planners. Maybe because it generates handsome livings for many lawyers who see no need to fix what doesn’t appear broken.

Mostly, though, it’s about resistance to change — a very human trait, one that’s magnified in a legal profession trained to be cautious and rely on precedent. Lawyers are resistant to change for change’s sake — and as Dilbert has observed, that’s sensible. Change is good only if there are specific, measurable advantages to be gained, if there’s a legitimate case to be made.

With regard to the billable hour, that case is ironclad. It’s not just because clients resent paying for time spent rather than results obtained (something you wouldn’t accept from your accountant or mechanic). It’s not just because the billable hour discourages lawyers from integrating more closely with their clients’ goals and interests. It’s not just because billable-hour targets are the bane of thousands of lawyers’ lives.

It’s because the marketplace has shifted. Consumers of every stripe demand choice and customization — they’re not just purchasing products and services, they’re purchasing a feeling that their wants and needs have been considered and accommodated. They want the assurance of an established service provider coupled with the sense of individual attention. Increasingly, thanks to Internet businesses, they’re getting it — and they’re getting used to it.

Too many lawyers still believe they can sell their services according to what best suits their own needs and conveniences. Clients are poised to deliver a powerful message to the contrary: change is good.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the March 2005 issue of National magazine.

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