Do the Number of Hours Billed a Year Determine Whether Someone Is a Good Lawyer?

I was a presenter to the CBA BC Branch Work Life Balance Section meeting on January 21, 2010, entitled “The Lawyer Management Challenge: Attracting and Keeping Great Talent.”

The content of my presentation was largely based on my earlier post on Slaw on “How Virtual Law Firms Attract and Retain Great Legal Talent.”

The key three slides of my presentation set out a side by side comparison of the schedule and compensation of an associate working for a traditional law firm versus a contract lawyer working for Heritage Law:

A Day in the Life

View more documents from Nicole Garton-Jones.

A question from the floor was: Can you be a good lawyer if you are only billing 1200 hours a year?

What do people think?


  1. That depends on whether a raven is like a writing desk.

  2. Excellent point, David. A classic example of begging the question which only leads the unchastened down the proverbial rabbit-hole. Who cares how many hours one bills? Time is money, but quality is paramount to quantity. 1200 hours of mediocrity is just that; mediocrity.

    In response to the Hatter’s riddle, I would answer: “Because Poe wrote on both.”

  3. Good one. Still, I prefer Huxley’s: because “there is a b in both and because there is an n in neither.

  4. Then there’s talent development theories like Gladwell’s that say you get good at something by practice. Yet perhaps virtualization is a path to specialization and therefore a path to high performance and lifestyle. Don’t claim to know an answer. Just interested. Dan.

  5. It’s interesting for us all, especially those of us earlier on in our career who are told that high billable hours are a necessary prerequisite to higher levels of practice.

    I see enormous opportunities here for an established independent or smaller law practice to poach other lawyers by providing them more flexibility and independence.

  6. Inherent in this question, though thus far unspoken, is the assumption that the only way lawyers get paid is by billing by the hour.

    In a practice where one bills on the basis of block fees for a particular project or result, the question “Can you be a good lawyer if you are only billing 1200 hours per year” becomes even sillier than David Chiefetz cheekily makes it out to be. Leave aside the fact that someone can be a “good lawyer” (dare I say even a “great lawyer”) and ‘only’ bill 1000 or hours (or 10 hours for that matter). One can rephrase the question slightly and still be a “profitable” lawyer who works less than 1200 hours per year in a law fim that bills its clients without slavish reliance on the billable hour.

    I have no idea how many hours the lawyers in my firm bill because in our boutique criminal practice, the vast majority of our retainers are based on a block fee to complete a case. I know our lawyers work hard and charge a fair fee for that work. Thus, they are “good” from both a qualitative and financial perspective.

  7. I like the question rephrased at ’10 hours a year’, because at some point our ‘good lawyer’ can’t regularly trade their time for a paycheque, or pay the operational expenses to keep the doors open. Edward’s nailed it: being profitable is what counts.

    Most firms aren’t going to divulge what that number is, but they should know it. It shouldn’t matter if the business model is hourly billing or fixed fees; if you can’t project creditable revenues per lawyer, allocate expenses & adjust compensation accordingly…

    The point, I suppose, is that firms & lawyers be honest about expectations. If you don’t want to bill X number of hours each year, find (or build) a firm with operational costs that ‘fit’.

    Can you be a good lawyer? very subjective. Can you be a profitable lawyer? Aha! for that, we have a formula. :)

  8. Consider this scenario: current managing partner to main rainmaker.

    Excuse me, John, but we’re going to have to ask you to leave the partnership, even though your clients are the source of 95% of our $XY milllions in billings. We decided at the last partnership meeting (which you missed because you were in Dubai with the CEOs of XXXX) that you’re not a good lawyer because you docketed only 10 hours of billable time last year.

    You will, of course, ask all of your clients to stay with us after you leave, right?.


  9. I think what the person in the audience was getting at was the Malcolm Gladwell-esq observation that the more you do something, the better you become at it. Thus, if you do less lawyering, irrespective if it is billed hourly or flat fee, you are perhaps less competent than someone who does more.

    The difficulty with this observation is that the required work hours of most traditional law firms make it difficult for them to retain large numbers of women, who still generally shoulder more child rearing responsibilities. The costs of associate attrition, loss of talent and a lack of a diverse workforce follow.

    50% or more of law school graduates today are women. Millenials as a cohort reportedly rate work life balance above all other factors in assessing the attractiveness of a prospective employer. The law firm business model is predicated on maximizing the productivity of its lawyers and staff.

    Demographic trends are hitting up against an entrenched business model, and there are no easy answers or fixes to resolve it.

  10. With respect to Ms Garton-Jones, I don’t think that the problem with the statement that you can “good” at law only if you work (and bill – but that’s a separate question, as Steve and others have noted) huge numbers of hours, is that it makes it hard for women and millenial men to find the life/work balance they need. The statement might still be true, and the implication would be that these lawyers who do not/do not choose to work the huge numbers of hours simple are not and will not be as good at what they do.

    THe problem with the statement is not that it says bad things about large numbers of lawyers, but that it is simply not true. Indeed at some point, my estimate of which is probably a lot lower than that of the managing partner of large law firms, the number of hours worked/billed harms the quality of the law being done. One’s judgment just isn’t as good as someone who is better rested, or better rounded in his or her life. Life/work balance can make someone a better lawyer than the person who spends the time just working. Not to mention participating in the community, or in one’s family, or just sitting and reading something different. Doing a blog, maybe…

    And even that assumes that there is any kind of consensus on what a ‘good’ lawyer is, which is, as old-fashioned litigators used to (and may still) write, not admitted but denied.

  11. A fairly well-known joke makes a relevant point.

    I’ll use the engineering version that I copied from another site. It’s elsewhere too.

    There once was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multi-million dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine fixed, but to no avail. In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge.
    He spent a day studying the huge machine. At the end of the day, he marked a small “x” in chalk on a particular component of the machine and proudly stated, “This is where your problem is”. The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again. The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges. The engineer responded briefly:

    One chalk mark: $1.
    Knowing where to put it: $49,999.

    It was paid in full and the engineer retired again in peace.

    There are other versions. In most, the time spent is significantly less. I’ve seen one where it’s an hour.

  12. Martin Mayer’s book from about 1970, The Lawyers, had a similar anecdote about one of the big-name Washington power lawyers: the client comes in and tells him the problem, the lawyer in the presence of the client picks up the phone and gets the person on the line to fix the problem on the spot, and bills the client $50,000. The lawyer told Mayer that the client will get the money’s worth by telling everybody “MY lawyer, X…” and “do you know what that SOB did” in full admiration for years (not to mention having the problem fixed too.)