Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Slave to the billable hour

As many of you know, I'm a lawyer. It is the unfortunate practice of my profession to bill time by the hour, a policy that is universally reviled by attorneys but nonetheless accepted as the only way to convince clients that we aren't fleecing them completely. Indeed, the entire concept of "the billable hour" evolved to protect clients from unscrupulous lawyers who pretended to be doing more work than they actually are.

But what if that premise isn't true? A recent survey, reported today in the Wall Street Journal, found that 55% of attorneys admit to doing "unnecessary work" to pump up their billable time. Sixty-six percent admitted "knowledge" of bill padding, artifically inflating the time spent on a task. Sadly, I'll admit that I've padded my time (though I've never done any unnecessary work, given my inherent laziness).

It doesn't have to be this way! Plaintiffs' attorneys -- that is, attorneys who represent people suing to recover damages -- work on a contingent-fee arrangement, whereby they get paid only if you win (though they take a hefty slice -- usually between 25 to 50% of your recovery). There's no reason that the "defense bar" -- that is, attorney who represent the large entities that are the usual target of plaintiffs' attorneys -- could not craft alternative fee-structures that align incentives with outcomes. Yet there is tremendous institutional resistance to eliminating the billable hour. Perhaps this study will force clients to reconsider.


Blogger AJH said...

You make an excellent point. I'd encourage you to help change that dynamic. I have some ideas but I'd like to have an "off-line" conversation with you about this:

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...


Have a look at


for a British view about the joys of the legal system. Not so much the billable hour as the billable year!

1:34 PM  

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