Billable hours. Ugh. The end all and be all in most law firms today. Together with client origination, billable hours have been the measure of success for law professionals for generations.
2200 annually. 2000. 1950. It really doesn’t matter. The ounce of flesh that is exacted to reach those numbers is considerable and should be of primary concern. Wellness of professionals, wholesome law firm values, training young lawyers to become law firm leaders, and client service should matter most — not billable hours.
Despite these countervailing considerations, we keep concentrating on leveraging and law firm profits, all of which derive directly from billable hours. Although there have been many commenters over recent years exposing the weaknesses of such a high concentration on billable hours, the profession has not seen a major move in another direction.
But recently, a top UK law firm represents that new direction. Clifford Chance announced an innovative pilot program in May 2019, which delves into the merits of a concentration on billable hours as a measure of success. Here is how a law firm executive describes the need for the study and how it will work:
While utilization is widely used as a core metric across the industry, it has a number of broadly acknowledged limitations, most notably that it does not directly incentivize efficiency or contributions to non-billable work that may be invaluable to the firm’s overall strategy and to the continued development of exceptional client service.
By running a pilot on this scale, with a large number of data points, associate input and partner and management feedback, we expect to be in a position to draw informed conclusions on the way ahead for the firm.
The year-long pilot program will consider lawyer performance based on other factors, including demonstration of knowledge, thought leadership, innovation, pro bono work, and business development. Although lawyers will continue to record billable hours during the pilot, those numbers will be used to compare results at the end of the program and to maintain client records.
Read more here about the Clifford Chance program. This kind of initiative is long overdue, and many of us, who care about the future of law practice and development of young lawyers into future leaders, will be very interested in the study results.
Stay tuned because you can be sure I will report them.