FROM 1,600 BILLABLE HOURS TO 2,100? WHAT?

This morning on the radio I heard that the number of average annual required billable hours for attorneys not so long ago was 1,600 a year.  Today that number is 2,100.  Taking pen in hand I found out that was 500 more than it used to be.  And that is 15 – 40 hour weeks a year more! This is absurd! We all know that this kind of slave driving will lead to an incredible amount of “fudging” and over billing.

iStock_000005545449XSmallEven more damaging is the fact that not all hours are “billable” and every attorney knows they have to work approximately a third more hours to bill out at that rate.  Many attorneys are working 7 days a week to meet these goals.  They are suffering loss of family and recreational time. Their health is sometimes affected and they are unhappy with the practice of law.

We also know that Law Firms have been in trouble in the past few years.  Clients are more demanding and new business is slower. It would seem a good business decision to ask known good employees to simply work longer hours and not have to hire new attorneys that have to be trained.  But at what real cost?

It would seem odd at this time when the minimum wage is being raised to $15.00 an hour that law firms can’t make decisions that do not cause harm to their staffs.  It is the same kind of budgetary factors which create more income in less time that should be developed.

So if you agree that this is a factor in causing a lot of attorney disillusionment and unwise activities like drinking and taking drugs, then what can you do about it? Some will say it is embedded in law firm culture and can’t be changed.  However, I bet the Millenniums with their work/life balance goals are going to have something to say about this.  They will be seeking out firms that don’t require such Draconian hours and perhaps even taking lower paying jobs to find the satisfaction they are craving.

Would it seem so far fetched to offer employment at a smaller wage in exchange for fewer billable hours to those who want it?  There would have to be incentives to be able to make the job attractive and ways to grow in the firm.  All of this could be done but a clear change of culture would have to be instituted.  These attorneys can in no way be considered second class attorneys. They need the same respect and prestige that their fellow colleagues have. They would simply be on a “different track”.

What do you think?  Every day I hear attorneys say that they went into law to “help people”.  If they are over billing and exhausted it is pretty hard to feel like they are helping anyone, let alone themselves. If we like this idea, what is the next step?  Or are all you too exhausted to think about that?