Most lawyers agree that timesheets and billable hours are terrible ways to measure value, but they don't know how to do it any other way. But amazingly, even as 2012 approaches, there are still some who actually believe that timesheets are necessary.
Jerry Kowalski, a former big-firm lawyer who now runs a merger-and-acquisition consulting firm, has been beating this drum for quite some time. His latest post of gloom and doom, called "I Know You Hate Keeping Time Sheets, but Even in the New Era You Must Still Do So and Here’s Why," is filled with canards like this:
The simple point is not simply that keeping accurate, detailed and timely time records is not simply the gold standard, it remains the only standard. Yes, virtually every lawyer abhors the notion of justifying his or her daily existence in twelve minute increments, and, yes, we all now know we sell valuable services not hours, time accurate, detailed and timely record keeping still remains with us.
Nonsense. Keeping "accurate, detailed and timely time records" isn't the only standard for measuring the value that the client places on your services. In fact, it doesn't measure client value at all. All it measures is a tiny portion of the time spent by lawyers solving their clients' problems. I say tiny because it only accounts for the hours spent applying the lawyers' knowledge; it completely ignores the years of study and experience that the lawyers accumulated to garner that knowledge.
For example, according to Kowalski's bio, he practiced law full-time from the late seventies until 1992. I'm sure that near the end of his career, his clients benefited much more from his 15 years of knowledge and experience than from a few hours of casework. But none of his knowledge and experience was reflected on his timesheets. (And don't tell me it was reflected in his billing rate. That's not how BigLaw rates work. They're based on geography, firm size, and years since graduation — not knowledge or experience or skill. Jerry's value to his clients was probably underrepresented.)
The notion that timesheets are the gold standard of value is also belied by the fact that all timekeeping firms frequently write down their lawyers' time. At the end of each month, the billing partner reviews the other lawyers' timesheets in the context of the total job performed for the client. If the result seems high — especially if a junior lawyer spent "too long" on a research issue, or if the outcome was unfavorable for the client — the billing partner writes down the total to some arbitrary amount that feels "fair." But how can this be? Jerry says that the timesheet is the only standard of value for a lawyer's work? If that was true, law firms should never write down hours.
Finally, there's the tired, fearmongering refrain that legal pricing (what Jerry calls "alternative fee arrangements" or "value billing") is somehow illegal. As if. I challenge anyone to find me binding legal authority that mandates hourly billing or prohibits pricing. Kowalski and other critics of pricing often point to the rare case where a court has ruled unfavorably on fixed fees. But in the cases where courts have disallowed or reduced fees, the lawyers acted with questionable ethics and tried to defend unreasonable fees. The New York case Jerry cites actually involved made-up time records.
As for the massive fee award in the Southern Copper case, that fee wasn't based on the attorneys' hours; it was based on the result. The lawyers won a $1.9 billion award. They sought a fee of 22.5%; the court granted them 15%, or $285 million. Doing the math and calling it $35,000 an hour is silly. The plaintiffs didn't hire the lawyers for their time; they hired them for the $1.9 billion.
Clutching the Prohibition Era (1919, to be exact) talisman of the timesheet shows the world that you don't have any idea what your clients are buying. Clients don't buy hours; they buy your knowledge. Try measuring that instead.
And sowing fear about the risks of a timeless pricing model is reminiscent of the opposition to horseless carriages at the turn of the last century — not long before the birth of the billable hour.
(Image from "Vintage hate for automobiles" at 22 Words.)
Update Jerry responds in the comments below, which I greatly appreciate.