Billable Hours and Burnout

Think they’re not related? Think again.

Allison Shields has an excellent post on her LegalEase blog called “Why Do Lawyers Leave the Law?” She describes a departed lawyer’s frustrations as described in a article in New York Lawyer:

“I felt that something I’m really good at is turnaround time, and I did not feel there was any reward for that,” she says. “The reward was more work. I didn’t see how I could ever get to the point where I was so good at my job that I could manage it all. The point was the hours.”

This is exactly the scenario Ron Baker describes as human cattle and not human capital. How can someone feel good about his or her professional career when one’s day is more like a production line? Allison goes on to describe:

Under a billable hour system, this is exactly what happens: rather than being rewarded for being efficient (or, even better, effective) – which is what the client would most often prefer – many lawyers in a billable hour system are penalized for exactly the kind of work that clients want. Lawyers need to make their hours, so their alternatives are to either work slowly, inefficiently, and ineffectively, or to ‘pad’ their hours – unless they want to be passed over for advancement or compensation increases.

See her blog post for more excellent insights as well as a link to the original article. As an aside, several VeraSagers (Ron Baker, Paul Kennedy, Tim McKey and I) had the pleasure of meeting Allison in Kansas City in November. She’s a great thinker and adds tremendously to the professions of consulting and law.

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