The failure of billable-hour compensation

Two ugly stories from the mainstream legal media at least give us the opportunity to consider an under-publicized way in which the billable hour poisons the profession.

First is this National Law Journal article about how law firms are responding to the recession (short answer: myopically). Among other things, firms are laying off staff and paralegals in droves, perhaps in part because underutilized associates are keeping for themselves the work they normally delegate to these para-professionals:

“It’s a desperate move to keep their billables up,” said [Chere Estrin of paralegal training company Estrin LegalEd], noting that paralegals have told her that some associates are doing their own document reviews, deposition summaries and other research. “It’s gotten worse lately, and it’s not good for anyone.”

Not good for the paralegals, vulnerable employees placed at greater risk of layoffs in an economic storm. Not good for the associates, whose legal skills atrophy as they rediscover how many words they can type per minute. And not, by the way, so good for clients who wind up paying associate-level prices for staff-level work. Pretty good for the firm’s bottom line, though.

Difficult as it might seem to trump that story, this one manages it: “Down in the Data Mines,” an aptly titled article in December’s ABA Journal. It’s a first-person account of a contract lawyer labouring in a New York City basement doing document review for a large law firm (HT to Ron Friedmann). Here’s the most telling, and appalling, excerpt:

If I review 100 documents per hour (a very fast pace), I get paid the same hourly rate as if I review 30. More­over, each project consists of a finite number of documents; so the faster I work, the sooner I am out of a job and need to start hustling for the next project. “Don’t work us out of a job,” a veteran contract attorney once derided me in private after I reviewed too many documents on the first day of a new project. And the firm is usually OK with this attitude; in my experience, speed and accuracy have always taken backstage to billable hours.

We’ve pretty well established that the billable hour is harmful to the lawyer-client relationship, and these two articles provide evidence for that. But what we don’t talk about as often is that the billable hour is far more damaging — poisonous, actually — to the relationship between a law firm and its employees.

We need to start by emphasizing the two related but distinct ways in which “the billable hour” is used in the legal profession. In the lawyer-client relationship, it represents a method (or a regime) by which lawyers’ services are billed to the client — a construct for the terms of purchase and sale, nothing more. And there are situations where the billable hour is completely legitimate as a fee methodology. We most often cite examples like a complicated merger or a difficult divorce. But the billable hour would be appropriate in any transaction between a lawyer and client who know each other, trust each other, and have established transparency around the means by which the cost and value of the service is calculated.

The problem, of course, is that that kind of relationship is rare between lawyers and clients. More commonly, clients don’t trust lawyers to name a just fee for the work they did, and lawyers don’t trust clients not to take advantage of cost estimates and time parameters. In those situations (far more common in larger firms than in smaller or sole practices), the billable hour is rife with the potential for abuse by the lawyer, who holds the upper hand in an opaque, awkward relationship. But it’s important to recognize that the billable hour is essentiallya surrogate for trust between lawyer and client, one that could (and hopefully will) someday be replaced when the relationship becomes more mature, transparent, and equal. The billable hour is not really the fundamental problem — a relationship short on experience and bereft of trust is.

A lawyer and client look forward to the day when their relationship is sufficiently strong that the billable hour becomes irrelevant — it falls away from the relationship like a baby tooth replaced by an adult one. But there’s no similar hope for the other manifestation of the billable hour: a measure of lawyers’ productivity, compensation and advancement in most law firms. Every lawyer, from the rawest associate to the oldest partner, is scrutinized annually on the basis of the number of hours he or she has billed to clients. You never outgrow it and you never escape it – it’s a permanent, pernicious blot on the law firm landscape.

One of the oldest rules of economics is that people value that for which they are compensated. Compensate a lawyer on the basis of year-end client reviews, and that lawyer will move mountains to ensure satisfied clients. Compensate her on the basis of revenues actually brought in (rather than hours billed), and she’ll be a collections fiend, billing regularly and following up to make sure there’s no outstanding work lingering in the pipeline. But compensate a lawyer for the number of hours he invoices to clients, and that lawyer will lowball everything else — efficiency, timeliness, value, communication, even ethics — in order to maximize the amount of time he can take to address a client’s request. That’s the kind of lawyer our law firms have bred and unleashed on the marketplace for half a century.

Look at contract lawyers working slowly and inefficiently to bloat billable hour totals. Look at associates typing their own documents to sustain billable hour totals. Look at partners hoarding work from their associates in order to maintain billable hour totals. Fundamentally, instinctively even, lawyers know that how many hours they’ve managed to bill does not reflect how good they are at what they do. But under irresistible pressure, they twist their instincts and corrupt sensible business practices in order to conform to their employers’ business models and value systems. Organizations filled with people going about their business in ways that satisfy neither themselves nor the people they serve are going to be deeply unhappy places, and that’s what many law firms are.

Law firms have managed a feat you would have thought impossible: taken smart, dedicated, hard-working young men and women who are passionate, even geeky about the law, introduced them into one of the world’s finest and noblest professions, and within just a few years, made them hate it.

Here’s a question every law firm should have to answer: if you never billed another client by the hour, how would you compensate your lawyers? The fact is that few law firms would have the first clue what to do. They’d have to sit down and figure out how much value that lawyer delivered to clients and to the firm, a difficult exercise that requires a lot of research and judgment calls. They’d have to set multi-faceted performance expectations at the start of each year, mentor and follow up with the lawyer regularly to ensure those expectations are being met, and deliver an assessment at year’s end, all in the context of a employment relationship where each side respects the other more than they do now. Difficult, and a lot more work — but not impossible, and absolutely delivering a more accurate result.

Law firms assess and compensate lawyers by the hour for much the same reasons they charge clients by the hour: it’s convenient, and they can get away with it. The convenience will never go away — the billable hour is as lazy and facile a method of assessing employee value as you could ask for — but the tolerance level is finally starting to fade. We’ve seen a rising client revolt against the weakness of billable-hour pricing; I think we might be on the cusp of a rising lawyer revolt against the weakness of billable-hour compensation. Talk of a generational divide in law firms has faded with the onset of the recession, but it’s still there, and one of the ways it manifests itself is in very different ways of actualizing a person’s value. I don’t think Millennials are keen to be assessed and paid according to hours posted. I don’t think they’re going to buy that at all.

Billable selling and billable compensating are inextricably linked, and I doubt we’ll see one disappear entirely while the other thrives unaffected. Law firms, take note: every tiny step away from a billable-hour system for charging clients is also a tiny step towards the inevitable day when you’ll have to buckle down and actually figure out what your lawyers are worth to you and to your clients. You probably won’t enjoy that; but you’ll be a lot better off once you’ve done it.

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