Calif. Bar Prez Says Billable Hour System ‘Corrupting’ to the Profession
Posted Apr 4, 2008 10:07 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
A common lawyer lament concerns the problem of billable hours. Lawyers at large law firms often complain of the toll exacted by heavy workloads driven by the pressure to bill more hours.
Now the president of the State Bar of California is citing another reason to put an end to the billable hour: its corrupting influence on the profession.
In a California Bar Journal column, state bar president Jeff Bleich maintains that the billable hours system is at odds with the goal of many ethics rules to ensure that lawyers resolve client matters as cheaply and efficiently as possible.
“We all know about the lifestyle burden that billable hours places on lawyers,” Bleich writes. “But on a deeper level, a billable hours system is corrupting to our profession in both obvious and more subtle ways.”
Bleich quotes author Scott Turow, who also noted the ethical dilemmas in an August 2007 cover story for the ABA Journal, “The Billable Hour Must Die.” If lawyers were truthful, Turow wrote, they would tell clients the billable system rewards “slow problem-solving, duplication of effort, featherbedding the workforce and compulsiveness—not to mention fuzzy math.”
Most lawyers resist the impulse to do extra work to pad their timesheets, but the perverse incentives make lawyer decisions suspect. “While I honestly believe that I’ve based my own decisions on the best interest of the client, all of us seem to know a lawyer who we think hasn’t,” Bleich wrote. “The problem with this system is that even if lawyers are not corrupted by it, it still casts a shadow over the choices we made.”