Monday, October 24, 2005

More on Work Ethic

Coming from a profession which can demand arduous hours, with billable hour demands having increased substantially in recent decades for most of the nation's associate lawyers, some of my fellow lawyers may question whether my comments on work ethic also apply to our shared profession. They do.

Here, I'm not just speaking of the absolutely substandard work product that some lawyers and firms consistently produce - they are, in my opinion, the exception. I'm also not speaking of partners who complain about declining associate work ethic, even while imposing billing expectations on those associates that are substantially higher than those they had to meet at a similar stage in their careers.

I'm speaking of a different type of work ethic. Sure, lots of lawyers slave away at the office, six or seven days a week, and barely see their families. But what about their clients? When law firms take a "wink wink, nudge nudge" attitude toward creative and padded hourly billing, or pretend that a caffeine-stoked late-night hour at the office is just as productive as an hour of work after a solid night of sleep, they are not encouraging an atmosphere which is conducive to achieving the best value and best outcomes for their clients. The worst part is, they don't seem to want to do so - for fear of losing income.

No matter how many hours you work, if at the end of the day you put the firm's finances ahead of client welfare and accurate billing, there is a deficit in your work ethic.

Some predict the demise of the billable hour. Others question whether alternatives to hourly billing will primarily serve to add to law firm profits. One way or another, hourly or alternative, a bill should be honest.


  1. [Don't faint] I agree with your sentiments. One thing I do want to say, though, is that many of the lawyers I have worked with (and I myself) significantly discount those late-night hours, and other less-than-fully-effective time. The hourly rate times billable hours is the maximum they will charge a client, but virtually every bill goes out with an hours-billed figure that is substantially below the time on the clock.

    Of course, such honesty in billing is, as you have indicated, a matter of work ethos and ethic that needs to be adopted (and enforced) in each law practice.

  2. This is one of the things I really appreciate about working for a plaintiffs' firm (i.e. has contingency fees)--no billable hours. Of course I keep track of time, but the client doesn't pay for the ten minutes I took running out to get coffee, or the fact that it took an extra hour to write a brief because I was tired.

    That said, I don't see billable hours going away. I did tell you about the anecdote from a BigLaw associate I know, who walked by a Name Partner at the company Christmas party in time to hear Mr. Name refer to associates as "billable units".

  3. Whenever I get a "believe it or not, I agree with you"-type response, I am inclined to respond "Of course I believe it - you can't always be wrong". ;-)


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