Susan Smith Blakely

The Future of Billable Hours—- What All Young Lawyers Love to Hate

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.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want:  A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016”for her work on behalf of women in the law. 

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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