Does the billable hour defeat purpose?

Redefining legal purpose amidst billable hour constraints.

Key topics discussed

Exploring the impact: Billable hours and client relationships

In almost every single episode to date of the Your Law Firm Success podcast the billable hour is mentioned, and never in a good way. In my most recent episode with Catherine Hyde she comments as follows:

“The focus for the majority of my career was on the numbers and the only interaction I really had with the client was via email. There was not a lot of telephone interaction with the client and that was borne out of the fact that we were having to churn out so much work you don’t get the opportunity to forge relationships with your clients.

In actual fact, you’ve just got to get through it as quickly as possible.This boils down to the fact that you’ve just got to hit your numbers – you’ve got 6.7 chargeable hours that you’ve got to get through every day and you’ve got to do it as efficiently as possible and having a ten minute conversation on the phone with your client about how their weekend has gone just doesn’t lend itself to that.” 

Hands up here. I only worked in a law firm for about 20 minutes, and that was enough for me. I couldn’t get my head around the time recording thing. In contrast, my father worked in and ran a law firm for over 40 years and, I think, by and large enjoyed it. Everyone is different – I get that.

“You’ve got 6.7 chargeable hours that you’ve got the get through every day”

Redefining purpose and driving success

My question today is how can one engender a sense of meaning, or purpose, when your ability to form relationships with those you work for, and with, is constrained by the very measure used to determine its value? 

And, if meaning and purpose is important to you, in relation to your job, can this ever be achieved when you are ‘on the clock’?

For Catherine, the answer was ‘no’ and as such she took the brave step of setting up her own ‘purpose driven law firm’ where success would be measured in her ability to ‘change the conversations that people are having about lawyers and for people to be able to say that they really value, and even love their relationship with their lawyer.’

There is no way that any client of any highly financially targeted law firm would say they ‘love their relationship with their lawyer’ when their lawyer is pretty much unable, due to the constraints placed upon them, to communicate with them in a way that would give them a sense as to what this person is like at the other end of the email chain.

Challenges in talent acquisition

One more thing to think about here is the quest for talent. Talent acquisition and recruitment is often quoted as the most significant barrier to law firm growth and no wonder when talent can end up like the equivalent of an LLB’d battery hen firing out egg after egg in the form of 6 minute timesheet increments.

The impact of billing practices

My own daughter is currently considering a career in law and, being fully honest here, I’m quite against it, primarily because of the billable hour.

I actually think that lawyers can and do provide a brilliant purpose driven service where their advice, help and assistance can add significant value to a commercial relationship, but the thought of Hannah starting a job on a Monday morning knowing that she’s on the clock from the word go fills me with fear. I actually get shivers down my spine. 

At MLT Digital we track time, of course we do – it’s the only resource that we have and it’s also the only way of knowing if we are on track to deliver the results we are looking to achieve for our clients in a way that it going to return both a result for them and a result for us (WIN-WIN) however we don’t use these timesheets as a measure for billing our customers.

We use these timesheets to inform us as to whether our processes of estimating work are accurate, sensible and commercial, based on our experience and expertise in delivering our service. 

If we did use the timesheets as a method of billing our customers then we might just be tempted to try and take more time than was actually required so that we could bill them more, which would then set our objectives at odds with those of our customers, which then might impact the relationships we are able to engender with our customers and thereafter our sense of purpose….wait a minute..

Embracing change

The discourse surrounding the billable hour system in law firms invites reflection on the fundamental values that underpin legal practice. As Catherine’s journey illustrates, the pursuit of meaningful client relationships and purpose-driven service often clashes with the relentless pressure to meet billing targets.

If we reimagine our approach to time tracking and client engagement, do we have the opportunity to reshape the legal landscape, prioritising authenticity, efficacy, and genuine connection? Surely these are the foundations of any long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship. 

Will a new generation of lawyers, like Catherine, continue to challenge the status quo and embrace new ways of working that enrich both our professional lives and the experiences of those we serve. If my daughter does pursue a career in law, perhaps her measure of success will transcend mere billable hours, allowing her to thrive in a legal profession that facilitates purpose.

Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore

Founder and CEO of MLT Digital and host of the Your Law Firm Success podcast.


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