Billable Hour, Schmillable Hour: Why Giving It Up Entirely Is the Only Rational Course of Action

From Allison Shields’ excellent blog Legal Ease, we learned back in February that:

84.2 percent of attorneys that participated in an informal study conducted by the ABA Journal in November 2006 would be willing to earn less money in exchange for lower billable hour requirements. The findings were reported in a recent article in the ABA Journal e-Report (and also in the February edition of the ABA Journal).

Is this a surprise to any inspired solo? Not really. Many of us in fact first became solos due to some combination of factors which included the sheer madness of a life dictated by most large firms’ billable hour requirements. To those caught up in the quagmire, though, it might seem like you’re the only one who feels the way you do. In this sense, the ABA’s informal study serves a valuable purpose in communicating this simple fact: you, who inwardly rebel at the tyranny of the billable hour, yet feel enslaved by its rewards? You’re most definitely not alone.

OK, we have that settled. Now, take the next step, will you? Sure, recognizing that there is a problem is half the battle – but only half. What are you going to do about it?

Sure, you have options. You can convince your senior partners to lower the requirements. What’s going to happen, assuming lightning strikes and the planets align and you find a magic wand all at the same time? Even if a large law firm is convinced to give lower requirements a try, they will inevitably be pressured to raise them again at the next yearly review. The competition is just too fierce.

This is why I believe that the only rational course of action is to abandon the model altogether and go to value billing, flat rates, or any other billing method besides billable hours, and make the metric that counts something really soft and subjective – client satisfaction, measured by periodic mid-representation and lengthier exit questionnaires. (And if you’re truly tuned into your clients, you won’t have a problem.)

And if that’s about as likely in your firm as the earth opening up and swallowing you whole, then maybe you’d like life as an inspired solo, where you can create your own practice any way you can possibly imagine. If it makes sense for you and your clients, it’s a valid model.

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