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The Curse of the Billable Hour

May 9, 2009 | by Diane Faber Veitzer

As a lawyer, life can be an endless game of billing time. What happens to those non-billable hours?

One of the great innovations of the 20th century was the billable hour -- the idea that professionals would get paid based on how many hours they work, rather than on results. The billable hour is a sure thing. As long as I am working, each hour is valued equally, whether I contribute a million-dollar insight, or I revise the same document three times, crumple up the page and start over.

I've been a lawyer working on the billable hour system for nearly 15 years. The system never falters. If I work one hour, we bill the client for one hour, and my law firm gets a fixed amount of money. Of course, the law firm uses some of the money to pay my secretary, rent my office space, buy supplies, and take some profit for the senior lawyers -- but generally speaking, about a third of my billable hourly rate will "trickle down" to me. After 15 years, my hour yields more than $100 to me. Not bad, for an hour's work.

And it's day in, day out, every hour I choose to work leads directly to my bottom line. Assuming there is an unlimited amount of work to be done (there is), and the clients pay (they usually do), it's fairly steady money in my pocket for each additional hour I work.

A folk hero was born in the 1980s when one New York lawyer legitimately billed 27 hours in one day.

Add to the equation that in a law firm, people who work the most hours are held in the highest esteem. A person whose billing nears 3000 hours a year is regarded as superhuman by some and resented by others who worry that their 60-hour weeks make them look like slackers. In the hour-billing world, the high-billing worker may even advance faster than his colleagues (after all, he works nearly two years' time for every one of his neighbor's).

In this environment, life becomes an endless game of billing time. Instead of the 9-to-5 workday, five days a week, for which our country's labor unions fought so hard, most lawyers, accountants, and consultants talk of 8-to-8 workdays, six or seven days a week. A folk hero was born in the 1980s when one New York lawyer legitimately billed 27 hours in one day -- by including time he spent working on a westbound flight, which added three hours in time-change to his miracle day. A whole generation of lawyers grew up looking for a westbound transatlantic flight to break the record!


The incentive to work is thus clear and constant: a fixed amount of money and an incremental status hike come with every additional hour billed. It's a good thing -- but it's also a curse.

There is little talk of what is contributed during that hour. We often joke among ourselves that the hour of great brilliance is worth $1000, and the hour waiting for a connecting flight is worth almost nothing. But the hour in which I cleverly persuade my opponent to settle a significant case is paid the same as the hour spent in a meeting with my junior colleague making a list of things to do next.

Outside work, there is no price tag on my time. But what is the value of the hour spent outside the office? What do I "earn" in that hour?

It is much harder to value our time when we're not paid for it. Many of the hours outside of work are spent buying paper towels, in line at the dry cleaner's, or "on hold" waiting for a live person to pick up the phone. We may begrudge the time "wasted" in these activities, but we will still do them, because we can't avoid them. (Thanks to the cell phone, I can still take business calls (and bill my time) while I'm doing errands, as long as I'm discreet about it.)

Some of the most profound moments in life are not paid for in dollars.

But what of the hours which could be used either way -- to generate more income at a fixed rate, or for some non-lucrative purpose? The "marginal" hour poses the tough decision between a "sure thing" and an unknown value. A person with a fixed hourly wage must make decisions every day to determine when it is time to leave the office, valuing having those remaining hours free at more than the pay he would get for working them. And that decision requires courage, and optimism, and a core belief that some of the most profound moments in life are not paid for in dollars.

I'm not speaking of the mom who chooses to stay home and be a "mom" -- she's obviously made a wholesale decision that the money will never be enough to compensate for the lost opportunity of raising her children. I'm talking about the rest of us, the single folks or the primary bread winners, who have made the commitment to work, and to work hard -- and see our free time dwindling and never fully know what would have developed in those hours we chose to work.

The Torah places before us "life and death, blessing and curse," and urges us to "Choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). The decision has to be made each and every hour.


There is no hourly rate for building a relationship with another person. Unlike working at an hourly-wage job, the time spent is speculative, and its outcome uncertain. The initial hours of a relationship can be critical -- just being available is part of the dance. Once the relationship is established, how quick are we to devalue the time spent maintaining it, choosing instead to bill the extra hours and add to the "bottom line" instead? What about spending half an hour on the phone with an aged parent, rather than begging off to get back to work?

Those middle hours are even harder to gauge. Should I make the time to attend a marginal school function -- which might cost me $250 in real dollars? What it's not my child, but my single-mom neighbor's, and she can't make it? What if the project isn't an hour, but ten or twenty hours spent hosting a bridal shower for a woman you hardly know, but you have the perfect home for the party? What of the time spent visiting a sick person, or a mourner – how long can you stay? How quickly do you run out, needing to "get back to work"?

And what of "free time" -- that outdated concept of just "hanging out," seeing what turns up. Almost every Sunday, I find that some opportunity unexpectedly comes up. What if I miss is the telephone call of the friend who really needs to talk?

The hard choices in life are not between good and evil -- they are between good and good.

My rabbi once observed that the hard choices in life are not between good and evil -- they are between good and good. Earning a living is good; helping another person is good. The hard decision is to choose the activity that will bring the most life -- not just the most money.

Almost every hour of one's life can be spent doing something that is eternal. Just as there is an endless amount of "billable" work to do, there is an even more endless amount of non-billable work to do, too. The Torah gives us the courage to place a real value on doing mitzvahs -- even when it literally costs us money by the hour.

The kind of professional work that commands these high billable rates can be fun, interesting, challenging, and deeply satisfying. It can meet intellectual hunger, it can give the thrill of "winning," it can provide an opportunity to do some good in the world. And, we need to work, not only to entertain ourselves, but to earn a living, support our families, and give to others who are in need -- these are also mitzvahs. And for the lucky ones, who get paid well for that effort, congratulations and do good with the money.

But consider the dollar value in eternity for what you could have done while you were working.

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