Do billable hours lead to unhappiness?

I’ve spoken with groups of lawyers, and groups that include lawyers, several times. I mention the idea of keeping a time log. I point out that people are no doubt familiar with the concept, and keeping a time log just means “billing” your personal time like your work time.

Inevitably, someone will tell me that if she had to keep track of her personal time like her work time, she’d jump off a cliff. It turns out there are a lot of unhappy lawyers! I have had many lawyers record full weeks for me, but there’s often push back. Indeed, Gretchen Rubin, a recovering lawyer, talks in her forthcoming book Better Than Before about how she tried to track her reading time on a time log and failed. “Many people find the time log to be an invaluable tool, but I just could not use it. The paper was never in the right place, or I kept forgetting to enter my reading time,” she writes. Resistance is a funny thing.

I think what happens is that having to bill hours against a quota creates an adversarial relationship with time. If you choose to do something other than work for an hour, it feels like you must pay the hour back later. Leaving work early isn’t a nice treat; it’s a conscious decision that you’ll work later some other night. You are fully accountable for your time, and that complete accountability with a limited resource is not a pleasant feeling. Sure, people track their spending for years, but you can make more money. You cannot make more time.

This sense of paying the piper is exacerbated by the realization that being more efficient does not immediately win you more freedom. In the long term it does. More efficient lawyers can bill more of the hours they are working. As they move up, they can spend more of their billable time doing work they like, and farm out the stuff they don’t like to more junior folks. But this efficiency is a long-term play. In the short term, spending half an hour on a document instead of an hour doesn’t mean you get to be done. It means you need to tackle some other billable work.

To be sure, everyone faces the reality that time is limited. Everyone has chunks of work that have to get done, so goofing off at work means the time must be made up elsewhere. But in the absence of billable hours, it’s not so apparent. The harsh choice isn’t staring you in the face.

In any case, I do think there are ways to manage a billable life. One is to start billing first. I’ve seen a few logs from lawyers who try to clear the decks and get everything organized before billing. But then it’s easy to get distracted, and before you know it, core billable hours have disappeared. Hit the ground running, and save the organization for later in the day.

A related point: start billing earlier. I know that in the early years of law firm life, people have little control of their time. The culture values staying late. The trouble is that when you stay late at work, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a life. Few social activities happen at 6 a.m. But when you do get control of your time, starting as soon as you can in the morning means you can have more open space in the evening, when you can do normal things with normal people. This makes life feel sustainable. Mornings can drag on longer than people realize, so getting started as soon as you can feels like buying back time.

(If that’s not an option, consciously try to use mornings as family time. The time makeover of a lawyer in the last chapter of 168 Hours involves this strategy.)

Another idea: If you’re pushing to meet your quota, sacrifice one big chunk of time, rather than little bits here and there. If you do have control of your hours, choosing to work straight through one weekend, and taking the other three off each month, can help you feel more relaxed than working 3 hours of each weekend day every weekend.

Finally, since you know the full opportunity cost of an hour you’re not billing, it helps, psychologically, to make those hours worth that cost. Do your best to plan truly fun stuff for your down time. Two hours spent laughing with friends over dinner feels more worth not billing than two hours spent watching TV you don’t care about.

I’m very curious what anyone with a billable hour target has done to make his/her peace with the billable life.

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