Unlivable Law and Unbillable Hours

Updated: Jul 6

I was preparing materials for a Livable Law webinar, which required updating my sources regarding the evolution of the billable hour. I came across an ABA article that decried the current state of the law, and as a "regulating" position offered the following advice: lawyers should aim to work 2,300 billable hours a year. Billable hours in this context includes 1,900 hours spent on client work, and the rest spent on client development, continuing education, and pro bono. The data is also clear, however, that for every two hours billed (or reported, to use a more all-encompassing term), an attorney must work three. Based on this, the ABA (in its infinite wisdom) is saying that a lawyer should expect to work 12 to 15 hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year. When I read this, I exploded in laughter: you wonder why women and BIPOC folks get out of this insanity? Come on!

In a profession that continues to suffer from the same inequities that the rest of US society suffers from, which include racial and gender disparity, at some point the rewards that come with being an attorney are simply insufficient to justify the complete annihilation of every other aspect of our lives. If an individual works 12 to 15 hours a day, the rest of their life is suffering. Regardless of how we try to re-define or justify this as "hard work," plainly, this is unlivable. An individual arriving at 8 am, would have to work until 11 pm. Who drops off the kids? Who picks them up? Who handles after school care? Those are the logistical questions. But also, is this person supposed to give up on the important joys of connecting with family members and loved ones in the evenings? Of talking about the day at school and going to school plays? Of dining? Of socializing? Of being something of a human being rather than a widget?

And we wonder why mental health continues to be such a problem for attorneys?

Yes, hours spent on family, children, socializing, self-care, working out, eating and sleeping are unbillable. But that doesn't mean they have no worth. Quite the contrary. Our lives, our legacies, our relationships, and our selves are created and replenished in those unbillable hours. They are not worthless, they are priceless. There's a difference.

Saying this out loud makes me an outlier. For years, I lived this lifestyle, adopting it as normal and just assuming I had to find a way to pay for childcare, around the clock, to ensure I could be an employee, also around the clock. It was clear that if I complained, or insisted on having a nine-hour day, I'd be "less than," "too weak," and "maladapted" to the practice of law. Again, tacitly, that would translate in being seen as less competent. But as time went on, I realized that there was literally NO limit to the hours my employer would demand of me. And when I say "no limits," I really mean "no limits." So it is up to us to set those limits.

Women and BIPOC attorneys come into the profession as fully rounded human beings who have other obligations (and, frankly, other priorities). I cannot speak as to BIPOC attorneys, so I will focus this part of the essay on women. Women attorneys have parents, children, spouses, lovers, and friends. We come into the profession with familial and social networks; we are also the managers of our lives. Working in the law is one of the many hats we wear. Men, when they came into this profession, historically, had other people in their lives (often women) wearing the other hats. Men could come into work, do that, and go home. Someone else was handling everything else. (They didn't do so without suffering. The rate of alcoholism among men is higher than among women, alcoholism was and continues to be a serious problem within the male-dominated legal profession, and the untold damage done to male lawyers' relationship with their spouses and children is simply impossible to document). Case in point, I distinctly remember standing in the hallway at my first job, a Big Law firm job, and spontaneously thinking, "I don't have a wife." What I meant, obviously, was that I didn't have the 1950s archetype of a wife: the homemaker, home manager, child minder, and logistical support. I was those things, in my home, married to a medical student in the throes of rotations, raising two very small children. "I don't have a wife," I thought to myself, and launched back into the insanity of my meticulously controlled schedule.

Which brings me back, as always, to Legal Project Management. In order for lawyers to work reasonable hours, we can and should encourage the use of Legal Project Management techniques. This would create three fundamental shifts:

  1. We would have frank conversations about hours and bandwidth. A strong LPM would be able to control those insane hours by spreading work and bringing up insufficient personnel. Those would be hard conversations, but they'd be a step towards brining back sanity.

  2. An LPM would be able to focus on implementing techniques, legal tech, and organizational measures that would allow better use of time, so that lawyers in the office could focus on billing/recording hours, therefore increasing efficiency.

  3. An LPM would be able to track actual achievements and performance, while memorializing who gets which assignment, which would create greater transparency in compensation and promotion. We'd be moving towards a more merit-based system, which increases equity.

But before any of this, the first step is normalizing conversations about work hours and rejecting the absurd notion that lawyers should work 12-15 hours a day, every day a week, nearly every week of the year. It is absurd. And we should call it such.

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