Very recently a recovering lawyer, Kate Henning from Smiling Samoyed Brewery, wrote to me. Kate gave me permission to repost part of her email to me: "I have been following what you say about structure/pricing of law firms and how it is outdated. Unfortunately couldn't get the tide to turn where I was working. It is utterly demoralising working to the billable hour. I often think when we have something go wrong at the brewery - for example a stuck mash that adds time to the brew day - that there would be absolute outrage if various batches of beer cost more than others. Sorry, something went wrong in the process so this one is going to cost more! Customers would soon turn off a brewery that did that. I don't know why they accept it from law firms." ( emphasis mine)
"It is utterly demoralising working to the billable hour". I would love a dollar for every time I have heard- and continue to hear- a similar expression; be it from current lawyers, ex lawyers or in house lawyers.
Why is it do you think that working to the billable hour is demoralising especially for some young lawyers? Is it maybe because:
- all young lawyers are inherently lazy and only want to work between the hours of 9-5 maybe 5 but preferably 4 days per week? ( I think not-they are professionals they will work hard if there is a valid purpose )or
- daily billable hour targets are too unrealistic (we all know that to do 6 billable hours you need to "work" another 6 non billable hours)? or
- given the amount of work available to reach daily billable hour targets some lawyers need to creep/cheat a little each day on their timesheet to appease the system (and who is going to know anyway)? or
- at the end of each month some/alot of young lawyers time is written off by their supervising partner (and they are not told why)? or
- notwithstanding what the firm may say most of the KPI's for young lawyers are primarily, if not solely, based around how much $ they make for the firm (and as the firm bills by the hour that is directly related to how many hours he/she bills each year)? or
- the inevitable billing dilemma a young lawyer finds himself/herself in when faced with looking at the estimate given to the client at the beginning of the matter and what is now "on the clock" (do I "bill & duck", or write off; who do I fear most- my partner or my client?)? or
- having to face a client who is suffering "bill shock"( perhaps because the partner is too busy/important to deal with fee complaints)? or
- making any professional account for every 6 minutes of their day is 19th century factory floor command and control management? or
- they, their peers and their employers know it is wrong and a sub optimal business model but the firm refuses to consider, let alone implement, any alternative?
I and many others have previously written about why timesheets are, amongst other demotivators, such big innovation killers, and what will happen to firms that fail to innovate. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for any professional firm-they know there are viable proven alternatives to the "we sell time " business model yet many firms refuse to change.
Why some clients still accept time based billing is also beyond comprehension-perhaps unsophisticated clients know nothing better but sophisticated clients really have no excuse.
There are thankfully now more and more innovative firms and their clients who are reaping the mutual benefits of a non time based environment.The external disruptors and other non law firm entrants taking market share away from traditional law firms have long realised this.
In the meantime for those lawyers and clients who feel "trapped" in the billable hour system, maybe a visit to Smiling Samoyed Brewery or a taste of their craft brew at selected outlets might, temporarily at least, take your mind off your "demoralisation"?*
* Disclaimer: The author has not (regrettably) been bribed or coerced in anyway in promoting this craft brewery or the over indulgence of any alcohol for that matter during the construction of this post.