Call me a step slow. I’ve only recently stumbled across the memo prepared by Yale Law School warning students about the tyranny of the billable hour. As someone who billed hours for more than 25 years but no longer plays in that sandbox, I feel compelled to comment.
At the outset, let me type words that may startle lawyers just now beginning their careers: I never felt burdened by the need to bill hours. (Let the abuse begin!) After clerking, I started my career in the 1980s at a small firm that didn’t make a big deal about billing time. I was instructed by one senior partner (and I very nearly quote): “You learn the area of law that you’re researching; that’s what will make you a valuable lawyer some day. I’ll take care of the bill, making sure that our client pays only a fair price for your work.” (I later dedicated a book to that guy.)
I was told by another partner: “We’re a small firm, so we’re not as prominent as the big firms are. It’s part of your job to help raise the collective profile of this firm and its lawyers. We don’t particularly care whether you join a bar association, write articles, or go on the board of a non-profit, but we do care that you do something to let people in the community know that we exist. It’s part of your job.”
I thought those guys were right, and I took that attitude with me when I later (must have popped a gasket and) moved from a small firm in San Francisco to one of the world’s largest firms in Cleveland. I continued to stay busy with client work, but I also made a point of helping to raise the firm’s profile in the world. I occasionally felt burdened by the crush of work, but I never felt burdened by the need to “bill hours.” In the course of 25 years, while I practiced law at two different firms, no one ever said a word to me about the number of hours that I billed.
That cuts in both directions. On the one hand, no one ever asked me why I was foolishly wasting all that non-billable time teaching classes and working on non-profit boards. On the other hand (at least after I left San Francisco), no one ever said, “Congratulations for having written those books,” or, “Congratulations on getting that article published in the Wall Street Journal.” But I, at least, took far more satisfaction in those accomplishments, and in the results that I achieved for clients, than I ever took in having billed a lot of hours (which seems to me like a uniquely unsatisfying professional goal).
How many hours did I bill?