Steven Harper
Steven Harper (Karen Hoyt)

Back in January, a dramatic development swept through the investment banking world: Bank of America Merrill Lynch and others announced a reprieve from 80-hour workweeks.

According to the New York Times, Goldman Sachs “instructed junior bankers to stay out of the office on Saturdays.” A Goldman task force recommended that analysts be able to take weekends off whenever possible. Likewise, JP Morgan Chase gave its analysts the option of taking off one protected weekend—Saturday and Sunday— each month.

“It’s a generational shift,” a former analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch told the Times in January. “Does it really make sense for me to do something I really don’t love and don’t really care about, working 90 hours a week? It really doesn’t make sense. Banks are starting to realize that.”

The Fine Print

There was only one problem with the noble rhetoric that accompanied such trailblazing initiatives: At most of these places, individual employee workloads didn’t change. Recently, one analyst complained to the Times that taking advantage of the new JP Morgan Chase protected weekend policy requires an employee to schedule it four weeks in advance.

Likewise, a junior banker at Deutsche Bank commented on the net effect of taking Saturdays off: “If you have 80 hours of work to do in a week, you’re going to have 80 hours of work to do in a week, regardless of whether you’re working Saturdays or not. That work is going to be pushed to Sundays or Friday nights.”

How About Lawyers?

An online comment to the recent Times article observed: “I work for a major NY law firm. I have worked every day since New Years Eve, and billed over 900 hours in 3 months. Setting aside one day a week as sacred would be nice, but as these bankers point out, the workload just shifts to other days. The attrition and burnout rate is insane but as long as law school and MBAs cost $100K+, there will be people to fill these roles.

As the legal profession morphed from a profession to a business, managing partners in many big law firms have become investment banker wannabes. In light of the financial sector’s contribution to the country’s most recent economic collapse, one might reasonably ask why that is still true. The answer is money.

To that end, law firms adopted investment banking-type metrics to maximize partner profits. For example, leverage is the numerical ratio of the firms’ non-owners (consisting of associates, counsel, and income partners) to its owners (equity partners). Goldman Sachs has always had relatively few partners and a stunning leverage ratio.

As most big law firms have played follow-the-investment-banking-leader, overall leverage for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985—from 1.76 to 3.52. In other words, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was for those who now run such places. Are their children that much less qualified than they were?

Billables

Likewise, law firms use another business-type metric—billable hours—as a measure of productivity. But billables aren’t an output; they’re an input to achieve client results. Adding time to complete a project without regard to its impact on the outcome is anathema to any consideration of true productivity. A firm’s billable hours might reveal something about utilization, but that’s about it.

Imposing mandatory minimum billables as a prerequisite for an associate’s bonus does accomplish this feat: Early in his or her career, every young attorney begins to live with the enduring ethical conflict that Scott Turow wrote about seven years ago in The Billable Hour Must Die. Specifically, the billable hour fee system pits an attorney’s financial self-interest against the client’s.

The Unmeasured Costs

Using billables as a distorted gauge of productivity also eats away at lawyers’ lives. Economists analyzing the enormous gains in worker productivity since the 1990s cite technology as a key contributor. But they ignore an insidious aspect of that surge: Technology has facilitated a massive conversion of leisure time to working hours—after dinner, after the kids are in bed, weekends, and while on what some people still call a vacation, but isn’t.

Here’s one way to test that hypothesis: The next time you’re away from the office, see how long you can go without checking your smartphone. Now imagine a time when that technological marvel didn’t exist. Welcome to 1998.

When you return to 2014, read messages, and return missed calls, be sure to bill the time.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.