Yesterday's New York Lawyer contained an interesting article entitled, "Why Women Leave the Law." The article profiles six women who decided to leave the practice of law and pursue other interests. The reasons why these women left the law are as diverse as the avenues they chose to pursue after leaving the practice.
Although the entire article is worth reading, one portion of the article in particular struck a chord with me: one of the lawyers specifically blamed the structure of law firm life, in particular, billable hours, for her defection from the law. This portion of the article jumped out at me:
But law firms, she says, are designed not so much to complete tasks as to bill hours. “I felt that something I’m really good at is turnaround time, and I did not feel there was any reward for that,” she says. “The reward was more work. I didn’t see how I could ever get to the point where I was so good at my job that I could manage it all. The point was the hours.”
It's no wonder that lawyers get burned out, and many feel that they're headed for a meltdown. Under a billable hour system, this is exactly what happens: rather than being rewarded for being efficient (or, even better, effective) - which is what the client would most often prefer - many lawyers in a billable hour system are penalized for exactly the kind of work that clients want. Lawyers need to make their hours, so their alternatives are to either work slowly, inefficiently, and ineffectively, or to 'pad' their hours - unless they want to be passed over for advancement or compensation increases.
While law firms don't outright condone padding or actively encourage their lawyers to work slowly, if hours are the only thing that gets rewarded, lawyers are going to do what they need to do to advance within the firm. Until law firms change the system so that hours aren't the measure of success within the firm, the firms will continue to experience losses of many of their best and brightest in one of two ways: either because the lawyers who care more about the result they're producing for the client than the hours logged will leave the firm (or the profession), or because they will burn out and lose their 'edge.'