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Scott Turow: Ban Billable Hour

Posted Jul 26, 2007 12:52 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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When Scott Turow's daughter mentioned that she might want to be a litigator, his reaction was not positive. At the time the best-selling author quit his former job as a prosecutor to enter private practice in Chicago in 1986, attorneys at big firms were expected to bill perhaps 1,800 hours annually. Today, that figure tops 2,000—and could well be 2,200 hours or even more, he says. And it is, of course, a primary way for law firms today to measure attorney performance.

Meanwhile, it takes longer to make partner, if an attorney does make partner, Turow points out in an ABA Journal cover story. "Worst of all, however, is that when somebody is working 2,200 hours a year, he or she has less chance to pursue the professional experiences that nourish a lawyer’s soul," Turow writes.

From the client's standpoint, too, the billable hour is a bad way to do business, he believes. It is a difficult method to understand and monitor, and—although ethics experts see no problem with it—charging a fee based on the number of hours a lawyer works on a matter puts his or her financial interest at odds with the client's, Turow contends.

"If I had only one wish for our profession from the proverbial genie, I would want us to move toward something better than dollars times hours. We have created a zero-sum game in which we are selling our lives, not just our time. We are fostering an environment that doesn’t provide the right incentives for young lawyers to live out the ideals of the profession. And we are feeding misperceptions of our intentions as lawyers that disrupt our relationships with our clients," he concludes. "Somehow, peo­ple as smart and dedicated as we are can do better."

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