Home Concepts Strategy Coaching in Legal Institutions The Good, the Bad and the Non-Billable: The Reality of Coaching Lawyers

The Good, the Bad and the Non-Billable: The Reality of Coaching Lawyers

19 min read

No Time for Anything but Billable Hours

Another challenge lawyers face is a work culture based on the billable hour.  Lawyers are among the most stressed out, exhausted and overworked professionals.  Many factors contribute to this situation, but the billable hour is among the biggest. Law firms are based on the consultancy model. Lawyers individually analyze each client’s unique circumstances and provide individually tailored solutions. This can be a valuable service to clients, but the downside is that there are no economies of scale. The more hours lawyers spend on a matter, the more they get paid.  Therefore, unlike in many businesses, efficiency does not lead to greater profitability. Associates are valued almost exclusively based on how many hours they bill per year, assuming of course that their work quality meets certain standards.  In this environment, any time that is not spent on billable work is often viewed as a waste of time.  Even when an individual lawyer recognizes the value of spending time on exercise, sleep, improved communication skills, leadership or personal development, he is still swimming against the current since the overall culture devalues anything that is not direct billable hours.

As a result of this obsession with billing and the associated lack of interest in soft skills, the quality of human interaction in law firms is typically much lower than in other businesses. Examples of partners treating their colleagues and staff horribly is not the rule, but is much more common than in most other industries.  I don’t believe this is due to the innate character of lawyers but rather because lawyers don’t have to communicate, cooperate or integrate with others the way they would if it were a different type of business.  In a regular commercial business, there is a strong interdependence and reliance on other parts of the organization. If the sales department is not communicating well with customer service or human resources, revenue and profits will be lost.  By contrast, partners in law firms don’t need each other in the same way.  It is common for partners within a firm to have their own little fiefdoms and barely interact with others regarding the substance of their work.

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