12 | FEATURE
HOW ABANDONING TIME
or most of my professional life
have billed my clients insix-minute units. From the time
started out as a solicitorin the early 1980s, time billing was such an assumed partof the landscape that it barely merited discussion. Expressingreservations about it were regarded, if not as heretical, thencertainly as futile. Time billing was the way it had always been. Ifthe system was to be abandoned, what possible alternative wasthere?
had firsthand experience of the increasing commercialisation oflegal practice during the early part of my career. How the role ofthe time sheet moved from being a method of cost accounting,to the very inventory that lawyers
How the legal professionitself grew in scale, sophistication and profitability.No doubt time billing contributed to the ascendency of the legalprofession in general, and more particularly to the fortunes of myfirm Bowen Buchbinder Vilensky (BBV).But our concerns about the system continued to deepen for agreat many reasons. These were captured by the Chief Justiceof Western Australia, The Honourable Wayne Martin, during hisgroundbreaking if somewhat provocative address to the PerthPress Club at the launch of Law Week in2010.
quote just aselection of the compelling reasons he gave, in no particular order:
- Time billing creates an inherent andirreconcilable conflict between the interest of the client to achievean expeditious resolution and the interest of the lawyer to billtime.
- Time billing transfers all risk to theclient. The firm takes no risk whatever for unforseen circumstancesresulting in more time being spent, inefficiency or duplication ofwork.
- Most people would find it unacceptable for aplumber or electrician working on a house extension to bill by thehour, rather than for a fixed fee agreed upfront. Why should legalservices be any different?
- When 80% of complaints received bythe Legal Practice Complaints Committee relate to charges andthe
method, this is surely a sign of a systemic problem.
- Time billing rewards efforts, notresults; quantity, not quality; repetition not creativity and hoursexpended,not value to the client.
- Four lawyers might attend a meetingwhere one would do. Teams of lawyers go to court, some justsitting and watching.
- There is little incentive forlaw firms to embrace technological developments because theirutilisation reduces profits by reducing time spent on tasks.
not the customer
- Unless hourly rates arediscounted, the biggest corporation is charged the same price asthe smallest business.
- Whennew legislation is introduced, the first client requiring serviceswill pay for the firm's acquisition of knowledge in that area, whilesubsequent clients will get the same benefit at no cost.
communication between lawyer and client -
There is a natural disinclination to communicate with your lawyerwhen clients are aware that the cost increases every time they do.
- There is an incentive forlawyers to pad time sheets. Short telephone calls may be recordedas having taken six minutes. Clients may be charged for the lawyerthinking about the case while driving to work or while showeringor shaving.
-Time billing discourages activitieswhich are not billable time, but which are important, such ascontinuing professional development and education, communityprojects, professional organisations and the active and detailedsupervision of junior staff.
the hoarding of
- High-level practitionerswithin a
ambitious to fulfil their quota of targeted hours, canundertake low-level work, which is inefficient and costly to theclient.
- The emphasis on the production ofbillable hours creates a working environment which discouragesprofessionalism and reduces work satisfaction to unacceptablelevels. Clever young lawyers are leaving the profession in drovesand high levels of depression and substance abuse have beendetected among lawyers.Brief | February 2012