That darn billable hour. Evan Chesler, Cravath’s presiding partner, reiterated his opinion of it this week in the NY Times: “This is the time to get rid of the billable hour.” Cries for its eradication are burning up the blawgosphere. There is even a law blog, The Client Revolution, entirely devoted to "casting aside the legacy systems."
In case you don’t remember, I defended the billable hour a couple of weeks ago. The hourly billing method certainly is not without drawbacks, but it remains a fairly efficient way to compensate lawyers for their work. Of course there are lawyers who pad their hours, who focus on the doing rather than on the result, who work day and night in the relentless pursuit of 2400 hours/year of client work.
But do you think those lawyers are going to go away or stop overcharging clients or stop wasting their clients’ money when the profession moves away from the billable hour? That the new billing methods will be completely transparent, that cost will reflect value, that no client will ever again wonder if she got her money’s worth? Who are we trying to fool? Someone will always find a way to exploit the weaknesses of the new system, just as lawyers who provide real value, day in and day out, to their clients -- the clients that aren't complaining -- will always provide value. The way the compensation is calculated changes nothing. If we believe that clients will get better legal advice, make better business decisions and be happier once the billable hour has been eradicated, we’re fooling ourselves.
The billable hour isn’t the problem. It’s just a smokescreen. The problem is that clients no longer believe they are getting value from their lawyers. How are we going to fix that?