Many firms continue to rely on billable hours as the structural foundation to monitor individual performance and forecast revenue. Performance against billable hours targets is a key measure of the value an individual brings to the business. The higher the individual’s billable hours; the greater the pay increase, bonus and opportunities for promotion.

Lynette Wieland USE

Lynette Wieland

This metric perpetuates the idea that time reflects value. The impact of these targets on efforts to build a more inclusive profession, however, is yet to be seen.

A solicitor with a modest target of 1400 billable hours per year will need to account for approximately 6 hours of billable time per day (divide 1400 by 12 months, for four weeks, and then for five working days).

The result leaves around one hour in traditional core working hours (a 37-hour week) to complete other aspects of the job role including business development, administration, billing tasks, learning and development, supervision, one to ones, performance reviews, diversity and inclusion work and internal meetings.

However, that time is even less when you account for annual leave, while busier teams also have volume of work pressures to contend with, which means that people over perform on hours and fees purely due to work demands.

The inevitable reality is that solicitors work long hours to account for the non-billable work which they do for the business. This additional time is often unrecognised by the traditional billable hours metric. It is, therefore, unsurprising that solicitors are reported to be struggling with work life balance and burnout is all too common.

Billable hours and disability

The impact of a culture largely driven by billable hours targets on particular groups has not yet been fully considered. Research by Legally Disabled? indicates that 'billable hours could severely disadvantage disabled people in the profession'.

A person with a disability is likely to require additional time to tend to medical care needs due to the inherent difficulties of having a disability.

A solicitor with chronic fatigue syndrome may need to take more breaks to avoid pain or problems with concentration. This is often not considered when setting targets.

As a neurodivergent solicitor, certain tasks take me longer, even with assistive technology, meaning I spend more time on particular tasks compared to others. 

Despite sitting at my desk for longer periods than others in the team, I see unaccounted time which cannot be charged to clients, because of my decreased ability to recall and process information at pace.

With an undiagnosed medical condition, I also felt that I could not justify short absences, despite not being well enough to work as I was concerned about their impact absences on targets.

When you start to scratch the surface of the behaviours that billable hours targets drive, it becomes apparent that those with certain characteristics are disproportionately affected by this blunt measure.

In a bid to address these issues, the Law Society published its reasonable adjustments guidance in September, which outlined the reasonable adjustments firms and organisations can make to help them recruit and employ disabled staff.

Disproportionate effect on particular groups

The Bridge Group’s report on socio-economic background and progressing to partnership in the law, sought to understand how socio-economic background affects progression to partnership.

The report found that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds take on average a year and a half longer to reach partner than their colleagues from higher social groups.

Respondents cited high billing as a criterion that’s essential for progression, with many interviewees citing this was not a neutral criterion concerning background.

They also confirmed that long working hours were harder due to childcare and family responsibilities. However, others ‘benefitted’ from full work flexibility with nanny’s and other private childcare arrangements, which for them were cultural norms.

The same can be said for females. With fewer females in senior roles in the profession, it’s very apparent that many cannot participate in years of long and high billable hours to be on track for partnership, particularly while society maintains that females are the main care givers.

Billable hours targets are, therefore, driving a culture that creates more barriers for those of a lower socio-economic background and those with childcare responsibilities.

From an intersectional perspective, there is a strong socioeconomic gradient for mental health, with those of a lower socioeconomic status being more likely to develop or experience mental health problems, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Socioeconomic divides are also a factor in chronic health diseases. Someone from a lower socio-economic background is not only at a general risk of burnout, but at risk of developing a condition which may require flexibility around billable hours.

To make matters worse, the construct of billable hours targets supports a culture of self-promotion and competitiveness to be the strongest biller. The softer skills which underpin competitive behaviours are gravitas and confidence.

These factors are well aligned to the pre-programming of those who went to fee paying schools; making up 21% of lawyers in the sector, according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, compared with just 7% in the general population.

A confidence deficit is going to be far more likely for a non-privileged person coming into the law, such as someone who isn’t straight, white, cisgender, non-disabled, privately educated or male.

Billable hours targets place those without certain privileges at an immediate disadvantage by placing them in culture which they are less conditioned for, one which values the strongest biller over team output.

What happens to those who cannot meet their target or buckle under the pressure of doing so? It is obvious that the profession is unintentionally ‘weeding out’ those who cannot sustain this pattern of working and losing the diverse talent it is seeking to attract in the process.

The road less travelled

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the profession the freedom of choice to work when, where and how we wish; allowing maximum flexibility with very few constraints on where we perform.

However, what worth do we place on the non-billable value individuals are bringing to the businesses and on retaining our diverse talent? What flexibility are we allowing for innovation and harnessing the strengths of a diverse team; the very ingredients that create high performing teams.

A more balanced system could remove personal billable hours targets (not necessarily billable hours) to extract individuals from their competitive silos and base productivity on the performance strengths of the team.

It would remove the need for self-promotion and the ‘every person for themselves’ mentality, which undermines a sense of community.

We can look to other industries in how we measure performance based on sales targets. They have shifted from individual to team-based targets, which has engendered greater productivity, efficiency, better results and greater loyalty from employees.

Performance, meanwhile, can still be measured via the quality of work output, outcomes, team targets and individual performance objectives.

Alternatively, bespoke billable hours targets are likely to be empowering for lawyers in certain roles. The split between matter related work and other aspects of the profession could be tailored to an individual’s strengths.

This would allow space to focus on innovation and on tasks related to firm strategy for those in leadership roles, alongside client facing work.

A move away from personal billable hours targets could create a cultural shift from the behaviours and attributes supported by this metric. It has the capacity to support a sense of community, create a psychological safe space for performance conversations and play to an individual’s strengths.

It makes absolute sense and provided solicitors learn to become better people managers, this will be successful.

The key question that law firms should be asking, is: what is the real cost if we don’t look at alternative measures? The loss of our diverse, innovative and precious human capital.


Lynette Wieland is an associate at Browne Jacobson and a Law Society social mobility ambassador