Beez in the trap

26 May 22

Reflections on the billable hour, from Tim Harford in a piece entitled, The billable hour is a trap into which more and more of us are falling:

Twenty years ago, M Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology, began an article with the observation that “Many lawyers are very unhappy, particularly lawyers who work in big firms. They may be rich, and getting even richer, but they are also miserable, or so they say.” Was this sad state of affairs caused by long hours or stressful work? Perhaps.

But Kaveny identified a more specific culprit: the “billable hour” — or even more precisely, the billable six-minute increment. By accounting for every moment of their working lives, and defining each moment as either “billable” or, regrettably, “non-billable”, lawyers were being tugged inexorably towards an unhappy, unhealthy attitude to the way they spent their time. ….

But perhaps more relevant today than ever is that the billable hour encourages us to view all time as fungible. If time is money, that’s as true for 6am on Christmas morning as it is for 2pm on Friday the 29th of April.

“No time is inherently sacred or even special,” writes Kaveny. If you bill £1,000 an hour, as some senior lawyers do, then any particular six-minute increment of time is available to be turned into £100. Can you really afford an hour in the gym? Can you really afford to call your mother or read a bedtime story to your child? The point is not that lawyers never call their mothers. It’s that the whole framework of the billable hour makes it feel naggingly expensive to do anything non-billable.


Compare the lawyer with, say, a dairy farmer. The dairy farmer works long and gruelling hours, and, typically, for far less money than the lawyer. But a large difference between the two jobs is that time isn’t fungible in the same way. The cows need to be milked when they need to be milked. And having milked them before breakfast, there is no temptation to milk them again after breakfast.

These long, non-negotiable hours can’t be easy and, just as a lawyer may be disturbed by a late-night call from a client, a dairy farmer may have to rise after midnight to help a cow in labour. But I don’t think I’m over-romanticising to suggest that just as there is something psychologically corrosive about the fact that the lawyer can always bill another six minutes, there is something psychologically healthy about the fact that the farmer can sometimes rest assured that there is nothing useful to be done until the morning.