The Billable Hour in a Bleak House

When I hear something “new” about the Billable Hour, I feel like I have just emerged from a time capsule.

As a new associate in a go-go corporate boutique law firm in the mid-80’s, the billable hours were flowing like Moet & Chandon in the VIP room in an LA nightclub. In my first year, I billed 2,230 hours. Nights, weekend, holidays. This wasn’t firm time, this was good time.

But it really wasn’t a good time, and I left after my first full year.

So for at least 30 years, I have seen the Billable Hour as something to behold: crazy and inefficient, sure. But persistent, definitely.

Then yesterday our favorite issue bubbled up in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ Law Blog dutifully noted it.

Here is the headline:

Watch out? For what?

If the Billable Hour is in decline, it is like watching a glacier recede.

As Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House:

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.

As I have noted before (2008, some of the links don’t work), I see the Billable Hour not as a model, but as a regime.

Next time, a few thoughts about what is really going on with alternative fee arrangements.

Until then, roll the video that supports the status quo…