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Getting Rid of the Billable Hour to Promote Work-Life Balance

Ah, the billable hour, everyone's favorite whipping boy. Not only has the billable hour been blamed for inefficiencies, skyrocketing legal fees and unethical bill padding practices but now, it's apparently responsible for pushing women out of the practice of law. And because of the billable hour's effect on women in the law, a group of Heller Ehrman lawyers has recommended elimination of the billable hour as reported in this article, All in Favor of Axing the Billable Hour, June 7, 2007. 

In an effort to move away from the "opt-out" trend -- described in this earlier post, where lawyers (predominantly women) leave the law to raise families and then return -- Heller Ehrman partner Patricia Gillette wants to encourage women to opt-in and continue to work even after they have children. 

In a recent speech, Gilette outlined obstacles to opting-in, which include inflexibility of law firm hours and low percentage of law firm leaders. But she also blamed the billable hour, which penalizes women who may work fewer hours, even though they maintain the same level of productivity. 

Of course, eliminating the billable hour to help women isn't likely to happen voluntarily ... just yet. Ronald Beard, a consultant quoted in the article, expressed that "it's going to be hard to do," and even Heller itself has not adopted the recommendation.   

Still, now that someone has, on the record, linked the billable hour to the "glass ceiling" at law firms, I wonder whether some enterprising lawyers might bring a class action suit against law firms, arguing that the billable hour disparately impacts women with families -- and thus, violates Title VII. The evidence is already there: More women leave firms than men when they have kids, and there's a disproportionate number of male partners. A group of lawyers could simply file a complaint at the EEOC, which has already shown that it's not shy about taking on Biglaw. At this point, the billable hour is so well entrenched and has been so thoroughly critiqued that any more calls for its elimination ring hollow -- particularly when those calls come from firms that aren't even changing their approach! By contrast, a lawsuit about the disparate impacts of the billable hour just might capture law firms' attention. What do you think?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 7, 2007 at 05:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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