The Billable Hour “Hurts Women’s Careers”? No Kidding!

April 16, 2019

Recently, Legal Week highlighted another aspect of the billable hour-alternate fee arrangement debate: not only do clients grumble about the question of value when attorneys are incentivized to bill as much as possible, but the billable hour might also be impeding women’s career paths.

How’s that? Well, some women lawyers argue that the structure dings them in two ways: First, motherhood has made them more efficient, meaning they can get more work done in less time. A male lawyer, who continues to work at the same pace as always, would bill more hours for the same amount of work. And in the through-the-looking-glass world of law firm economics he would be counted the hero. Second, home and family responsibilities, which continue to fall more heavily on women (according to the approximately fourteen million studies conducted on this question), make it nearly impossible for women to work the long evening and late-night hours their male colleagues put in. This doesn’t mean, however—see issue number one—that they’re getting less work done.

As a counterpoint, an anonymous male partner at a US law firm is quoted voicing the unsurprising cluelessness of one who is well-served by the current paradigm: “Both men and women have to accept that they’re going to miss parties and the theater,” he says, if they want to advance their careers. Parties and the theater?! As any working mother can tell you, these aren’t the things keeping her from serving her clients. Try pinkeye and the umpteenth snow day of winter 2019. (We will leave it to you to guess whether this partner’s wife was interviewed for the article.)

What does this have to do with law firm marketing and PR? Your firm leadership’s thinking on this issue matters. Even more, it matters whether that thinking gets expressed intentionally and explicitly (through your communication strategy) or unintentionally and anonymously, as it does in this article by the partner who arrived in a time machine from 1975 just in time to be quoted. The billable hour, like many of the structures in the law firm workplace, has baggage. We know this. It’s not a good look to go on pretending this fact isn’t apparent. Clients will take note. Recruits will take note.

Firms have an opportunity to showcase a progressive vision for the law firm of the future—one that is responsive to client needs and made up of attorneys from diverse walks of life who can innovate and solve problems creatively. Your communication strategy is an important part of how you articulate that vision and move your firm closer to it. The days of shrugging at the status quo are over. Make a decision to be intentional in communicating your vision. Call us. We can help!