Law firms hold great power over the fate and future of the legal profession. The decisions law firms make today will impact the profession tomorrow, especially for young lawyers.
As the economy has risen, so too has the profitability of many law firms. All too often, however, an obsessive focus on short-term economic success has come at the expense of law firm associates. Take, for example, the relentless increase in the number of billable hours expected from associates.
When I graduated law school in the mid-1980s, the average goal for an associate was 1,200 billable hours per year. In 2010, the average goal was around 1,700 hours for larger firms and 1,500 hours for smaller firms. Today, two-thirds of firms with 700 or more attorneys report 2,200 or more hours worked. Law firms with fewer than 250 lawyers average around 1,970 hours per year.
Imposing excessive work demands on a young lawyer’s life come at a cost – personal, professional and communal. Expecting associates to work long hours six or seven days a week, every week, without respite, denies them the ability to build relationships, attend family events, take vacations, and maintain their physical and mental health. Women attorneys have cited the difficulty they experience meeting excessive billable hour requirements as a reason for leaving the law.
Owing to the demands of work, young lawyers often lack the time and energy to develop their skills and build relationships through bar association activities. They are also unable to undertake pro bono work or get involved in civic affairs, politics and not-for-profit work, among other things.
Worse, the billable hour model has mutated into a threat to lawyers’ mental health. A 2015 study titled “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” found that higher billable requirements resulted in lawyers experiencing less internal motivation and satisfaction and increased levels of alcohol abuse. Likewise, a 2013 survey in the journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Law found that lawyers who billed the highest number of hours experienced psychological problems.
As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer aptly observed, “[t]he profession’s obsession with billable hours is like drinking water from a fire hose, and the result is that many lawyers are starting to drown.”
A law firm is a unique entity that straddles the worlds of business and professionalism. Profit maximization is not a law firm’s primary objective. No less than lawyers – who are bound by codes of ethics – law firms have a responsibility to contribute to society and the rule of law. Lawyers’ duties go well beyond their obligations to clients, encompassing duties to their communities. So too law firms.
The business of law has undergone watershed change over the past few decades. The marketplace is more competitive than ever. But the leaders of law firms must resist letting the business of law overwhelm professional commitment. A proper balance must be struck between law firms’ responsibilities to their clients, lawyers and doing the public good.
The law is the most influential, impactful and consequential profession in American life. That exalted stature is due, in significant part, to the contributions of law firms. The history and legacy of law firms as an institution is a proud one. Today, as before, we need law firms to be guided by the highest and noblest ideals of our profession. I am confident that they will.