Scott Turow on the Billable Hour

I’m really veering off topic here on today’s post, although I have in the past managed to post about the billable hour system and link it to the question of how policyholders should pay their lawyers in insurance coverage disputes. Today, though, I won’t even rely on that fig leaf, preferring instead to just pass along an excellent article on an issue that both every lawyer and every client who reads this blog has given at least some thought to - the inherent problems of the billable hour. I have talked before on occasion about issues related to the billable hour, such as in this post, and this is a very common subject of discussion for legal bloggers - to the point where one even has a law firm whose business model rests primarily on its abolishment. Scott Turow, who has been the most successful of an entire generation of lawyer/fiction writers at combining practicing law at a high level with writing at the same level (I’m not going to debate here the literary values of John Grisham’s novels in comparison, but will note only that he gave up practicing for all intents and purposes when the book sales took off) has this excellent piece in the ABA Journal about the billable hour and his discomfort with it.

One thing I liked in particular about it was that, despite laying out - as all critics of the system do - his criticisms of the billable hour system, he notes that marketplace forces place some checks on its possible abuse. To me this goes directly to an important point that I think, as a regular reader of critical analyses of client billing, gets overlooked in many articles complaining about the billable hour: namely, that clients are more interested in whether they receive value for their dollar than they are in the particularities of how they are billed, whether by the hour or in an alternative method. Like all of us, they want to pay the right price for the right services, something pointed out in the anecdotes in this companion piece right here from the same issue of the ABA Journal. There’s nothing inherent in the billable hour model that prevents that, and that, combined with the fact that most lawyers do actually manage to bring about fair pricing despite the use of that billing system, is, more than any other reason, why it is still here with us.