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There are now more than one million lawyers in the United States. That’s nearly one lawyer for every 300 residents. And while the number of lawyers continues to increase, so does the number of disenchanted. Recent surveys indicate that up to 40% of lawyers wish they were doing something other than practicing law. According to a 2002 survey by the American Bar Association, only 27% of lawyers indicate being “very satisfied” with their professional lives. Such sentiment may worsen if economic conditions weaken and outsourcing increases, making it critical to address the issue of lawyer disenchantment-now. The inquiry into lawyer unhappiness must start with the billable hour, likely the culprit for many problems afflicting the legal profession. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has raised concerns regarding the billable-hour system, recently wrote, “How can a practitioner undertake pro bono work, engage in law firm reform efforts, even attend bar association meetings, if that lawyer must also produce 2100 or more billable hours each year . . . .The answer is that most cannot, and for this, both the profession and the community suffer.” The practice of billable hours started in the 1960s, when attorneys realized this system was more profitable. Before then, time was only one of the elements of the fees. Other criteria included the difficulty of the case, the labor and skill required, the results obtained, and the experience and reputation of the lawyer. Concerns surrounding the billable hour have not gone unnoticed. In 2001, the ABA established a Commission on Billable Hours, which studied the current system. One of the major faults of the billable-hour system, according to the ABA commission, is that it is “fundamentally about quantity over quality, repetition over creativity. With no gauge for intangibles such as productivity, creativity, knowledge or technological advancements, the billable hours model is a counter-intuitive measure of value.” In many firms, associates are being evaluated not on the quality of their work but based on the number of hours they bill. This practice is unfair and is fueling cynicism among young attorneys. Since increasing revenue is priority one at most law firms, it does not take long for new lawyers to question mantras such as “acting in the client’s best interest” or “maintaining the highest ethical standards.” Inevitably, the relentless pressure to bill as many hours as possible infringes on such principles. Billable-hour quotas set by law firms, combined with the inherently stressful nature of legal work, compels many attorneys into a miserable state, contributing to physical manifestations of dissatisfaction. Nineteen percent of lawyers experience depression, while about 18% have substance abuse problems, compared with fewer than 9% and 13%, respectively, among the general population. Clients are also suffering at the expense of the billable hour, as the system does not provide an accurate gauge of value. Quality is not measured and the incentive for efficiency does not exist. Further, the system may conflict with the interests of clients who seek a quick resolution of issues, while lawyers have an interest in generating additional billable hours. Clients fed up with inefficiency and unpredictable bills are gradually prodding firms for alternative billing options. Many in-house legal departments have now resorted to placing not-to-exceed budgets for a particular matter and imposing flat-fee billing arrangements. The practice of law is ultimately a business, and the bottom line has to be observed. But satisfying this objective should not come at the expense of diminishing ethical standards, eroding client relations or worsening the quality of life for its members-all of which have been strained by the billable hour. No easy remedy exists for reversing the negative disposition of many in the profession. However, law schools are an ideal outlet for better preparing students for the reality of law firm practice, including raising awareness of the billable hour. The practice of law is stressful and demanding. Surely, it is not what may be portrayed on hit TV shows. The practice needs reform While the billable hour serves the financial interests of law firms, it is not optimal. In the interest of the profession, lawyers must accept the harsh reality that change is long overdue. Lawyers who are happier will be more eager to work, will be more productive and will be more committed to the profession. Firms need to abandon the rigid billable-hour system and explore more innovative billing practices. There should be some form of predetermination as to how much the resolution of a legal issue may cost and a method for handling unexpected changes. There should be an emphasis on efficient delivery of legal services. And there should be a means of rewarding quality service and the results obtained. Failing to address the problem of the billable hour will only result in more disgruntled attorneys exiting this distinguished profession. Vahe Tazian is associate general counsel for Plastech Engineered Products Inc., a Dearborn, Mich., automotive supplier.

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