It is 2018 and working practices in most professions are modernising. The gig economy has shone light on new ways of working, particularly through the use of emerging technologies. The focus now is much more on service delivery and value for money for clients. In light of this, I question whether billable hours are the future for the legal profession.
People are working in different ways, undertaking their working hours at times that suit their other commitments, giving them more flexibility to manage their own time. Most law firms are trying to be more flexible but in reality I am not sure that this achieves the kind of autonomous working many solicitors are looking for.
Clients are becoming increasingly demanding and, from my experience, they require more transparency around the costs they are incurring in relation to their outsourced legal work. Many clients do not fully understand the legal profession’s historic time-recording culture, or that they are likely to be charged each time they make a call to their solicitor (even if it takes less than six minutes).
In my view, recording time encourages bad behaviours. Whether this is by junior lawyers feeling pressured to record less time than a matter has taken them (where due to their lack of experience they fear they have taken too long), or where you are working towards a chargeable hours target and you feel pressure to inflate the time it has taken you to deal with something in order to meet your targets (which constitutes a breach of the SRA rules).
In the 2018 Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and Wellbeing Survey, 27% of junior lawyers cited billable hours as a cause of their stress at work. On days where we are feeling mentally well and energised, drafting a particular document may take us, say, two hours. On days where we are not feeling ourselves it may take four hours. Of course, the client would ask why they have to pay for these differences. It encourages bad behaviours, putting pressure on people to take longer to do a task in order to fill up time on their timesheet, especially if they are working towards a performance-related bonus which will only pay out if they reach a chargeable hours target.
As solicitors, we will all be able to recall a situation where we have provided an hour-based fee for a piece of work and we know from our time-recording system that we have already incurred time in excess of that quote. We are filled with dread each time the phone rings, perhaps try to pass the call off to a more junior colleague or simply do not answer and reply to them with a short email to try and get the matter finalised. This does not create a good level of service and encourages consumers to view the legal profession negatively.
With no timesheets or hourly rates, the new firm I work for operates a pricing model using fixed fees, fees based on shared risk, or on what the client believes is the fair value of the work provided. In this kind of environment, solicitors are incentivised and encouraged to work collaboratively in clients’ best interests and to be as efficient as possible in doing the work. It also provides a service that clients are used to receiving from other professions. Competition generally means that consumers do not expect to pay more than an estimate for a service we require.
Following the Competition and Markets Authority’s report of 2016, the SRA’s recent price transparency proposals will require law firms to publish information on the prices they charge for certain public-facing services. These include conveyancing, probate, motoring offences, employment tribunals (claims for unfair or wrongful dismissal) and immigration (excluding asylum).
Staff need to be trusted
Most law firms are now embracing or even encouraging ‘flexible’ or ‘agile’ working arrangements. In reality, however, these initiatives tend to be very inflexible, requiring hours and ways of working to be agreed in advance. Whether or not a ‘flexible’ working policy works for an organisation or department will depend on whether there is trust.
For an organisation to be truly ‘flexible’, its employees need to be trusted to manage their own working hours and arrangements. Encouraging employees to manage their own time not only removes bad practices, but it also makes them more productive.
The firm I work for allows its solicitors to work hours they choose from wherever is convenient for them, whether this be in the office, at home or from a client’s offices. Its solicitors can truly work flexibly because the employer/employee relationship is built on trust. The firm also allows us to take unlimited holidays.
For this type of arrangement to be successful, clients need to understand how it works and the firm needs to invest in technology to allow working from locations outside the workplace. The firm will also need to create a culture whereby people do not need to feel that they have to overwork to show that this type of arrangement works. It is likely to help retain talent in the profession and have a positive impact on equality.
Kayleigh Leonie is Law Society Council member for solicitors (0-5 years’ PQE); and a lawyer at start-up law firm TandonHildebrand