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The Lives of Lawyers: How Lawyers Can Untie Their Self-Worth from the Billable Hour

In May of 2019, I began a year-long federal clerkship after two years of working as a litigation associate at a large global law firm—meaning that my life switched from being divided into six-minute increments into not being divided at all. One of the most profound (and unexpected) changes I experienced was the removal of billable hour requirements (and the removal of billing hours entirely). Through this adjustment, I realized how the gauge of my own performance and success was, to an extent, tied to the number of hours I billed—and without those targets, it was difficult to assess my own performance.

After several months in my clerkship, I have concluded not only that the amount of hours billed is a terrible success metric, but that relying on the billable hour to assess performance leads to serious consequences for lawyers and law firms, such as declining mental health and efficiency in an age when the legal industry is more reliant on incremental productivity gains than ever.

Why the Billable Hour Is Not a Viable Metric of Success

The billable hour encourages inefficiency.

When stepping back from the billable hour concept, it’s easy to see one of the key flaws: the more hours you bill, the more money you make, despite the quality of the work. This reality puts law firms and clients at odds with one another—while clients appreciate successful outcomes and speedy delivery, law firms are inclined to encourage their lawyers to bill as many hours as possible, regardless of the end result. For young lawyers looking to improve at the job they trained for, an emphasis on the billable hour limits the opportunities to actually become better lawyers by learning how to efficiently and successfully running a case. A focus on hours alone also disincentivizes young lawyers from meaningfully participating in the legal community or pursue continuing education that could further inform their legal work.

Relying on the billable hour to assess performance means ignoring metrics that are potentially more important

For law firms, while billable hours might be a useful way to measure success in terms of dollars, they cannot appropriately measure success in terms of employee retention and happiness. And when one-third of law firm business leaders see recruitment and retention as a high risk to profitability, this factor should be significant. Emphasizing billable hours at the expense of all else promotes a culture of hiring many associates and working them extremely hard, squeezing their juice until the associate shrivels up and dries out. (Yes, I’m slightly exaggerating; fear not—not all associates turn into raisins.)

Additionally, large law firms–likely those most reliant on the billable hour system – have access to mountains of data related to the amount of time attorneys spend on specific tasks, retention rates, and revenue generation—but the focus on the billable hour may dissuade the firm from analyzing this data in a way that could support alternative fee arrangements and increase client satisfaction. And with the legal landscape becoming more and more competitive, this refusal to leverage the available data in favor of an outdated and inefficient model can only lead to firms falling further and further behind their more agile competitors…or, at least, to unhappy associates and the perpetuation of the stereotype that lawyers are to be avoided.

The pressure to work for as many hours as possible has a profound impact on mental health.

More and more law firms are acknowledging that there is a mental health crisis in the profession, but many of them are focusing on implementing superficial free massage and “self-care” session at the expense of trying to solve the root problem in a meaningful way. But the billable hour is possibly the most meaningful contributor to lawyer unhappiness. In a 2015 article for the George Washington Law Review titled What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, Lawrence Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon claim that “the specific [legal] practice factor that had the strongest negative relationship with well-being was required billable hours.” Krieger and Sheldon argue that this is because the billable hour is associated with “decreasing autonomy, relatedness, and internal motivation, an apparent example of managers undermining workers’ self-determined motivation and well-being by promoting a focus on external rewards.” And as I see it, the time away from friends and family might also lead to this trend of decreasing happiness with increasing billable hours.

Billable hours don’t only hurt individual lawyers—many are arguing today that they impact the profession as a whole. Jana Cohen Barbe, a senior partner in the global law firm Dentons, wrote a frank and open letter to the profession, in which she observes that she longs for the day when her self-worth does not fluctuate with the recording of her time. Billable hours, Barbe writes, create “pressure then—to work seven days a week, to miss family events, to forgo vacations, to miss needed doctor’s appointments . . . you feel guilty taking a Saturday or Sunday off, and it takes several days to let go of the guilt and begin to feel the relaxing effects of a vacation.” Even with less than two years of defining life in six-minute increments under my belt, I fully empathize with Barbe’s words.

How Young Lawyers Can Move Beyond the Billable Hour (Even If Your Firm Hasn’t)

While some of you may agree with me that the billable hour is an antiquated (and basically useless) metric, you may still find it difficult to evaluate your success in other ways. For us Type A folks, the billable hour is convenient—it’s an objective number, and the targets are clear. It was not until my clerkship that I was determined to untie my self-worth from the number of hours I worked in any given day. When I first started my clerkship, I felt like I was floundering in a sea of no affirmations. Were my multiplication-by-six skills going to wash away? There was no easy metric to gauge my own success.

It was then that I realized how my confidence in my work, and relatedly, a part of my own self-worth, was tied to counting (and not in the brilliant A Beautiful Mind sense). I recalled moments where I would celebrate billing over 12 hours in one day, or that one July 4th when I billed 15 hours and felt disappointingly competing feelings of irritation and depression combined with a sense of pride. It was only when I stopped counting that I realized how problematic this line of thinking was—and how much I needed to move past six-minute increments as a measure of success.
Below, I’ve laid out some of the methods I currently use to gauge my ongoing daily success. These can be applied beyond my clerkship—and I fully expect to continue these practices in my next role, no matter where it may take me.

  • Focus on the impact my work has each day, no matter how small. Before, I would have felt unproductive, inefficient, and as if my work lacked impact if my day was shorter than nine hours, but now, I appreciate shorter days (i.e., not working after dinner) because I can focus on my actual output.
  • Keep a detailed to-do list. This practice helps me reframe my thoughts to focus on efficiency by checking each item off in the least amount of time possible. It definitely helps that now, while clerking, I am incentivized by my own desire to stop working at a reasonable hour—meaning that I have to get through my daily tasks before I can go home.
  • Understand that that fulfillment partially comes from connecting with others. During my plight with six-minute increments, having the 20-minute conversation in the hallway on the way to fill up my coffee cup would ordinarily spin me into a frenzy of anxiety over whether or not I stopped my timer and then attempting to quantify how long the conversation actually lasted so I could accurately subtract it once I returned to my office. Focusing on incremental connections and appreciating the value of these unplanned conversations helps fill me up in a way separate from the number of hours I worked.
  • Engage in periods of deep focus, and eliminate distractions during those times. This can be as easy as turning your phone on “do not disturb” so you aren’t inundated by vibrations each time you get a text or email. By using products like ZERØ to automate some of the more mundane and time-consuming aspects of being a lawyer, like filing emails, you can also find more time in your day to focus on higher-value work.

Shifting my mindset away from counting and on other concrete metrics has not only improved my relationship with the clock but has improved my relationship with myself and helped me enjoy my downtime more, allowing me to legitimately recharge. Although I still am recovering from burnout (and perfectionism), at least I am taking one slow step forward rather than many steps back.

Disclaimer: These views are the author’s own and do not express the views of ZERØ.