I'm beginning to think so, after reading Frank Partnoy's article in The Wall Street Journal recently. Based on an excerpt from his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Partnoy makes a pretty compelling case about how the billable hour system turns lawyers into basket cases.
First, Partnoy gives us a historical perspective of hourly wages in the WSJ:
The importance of clock time in the modern workplace can be traced back to Frederick Winslow Taylor. In 1909, Mr. Taylor, a former lathe operator, engineer and management consultant, published "The Principles of Scientific Management," in which he argued that companies should replace rules of thumb for accomplishing tasks with precise instructions based on scientific analysis of the timing of tasks. He told factory managers to time their workers on the various parts of their jobs and to determine how long each part should take. Once managers found the "one best way," Mr. Taylor said, they should require everyone to follow that exact approach, all the time.
This approach to managing factory workers eventually spread to white collar workers:
Today more than 58% of all wage and salary workers in the U.S. are paid at hourly rates. Hourly wages are increasingly common among the middle class and in upwardly mobile professions, including law, accounting, consulting and medicine. One-fifth of hourly workers are under age 25, but fewer than 5% of hourly jobs are at or below the minimum wage.
So if you've ever felt like a cog in the widget factory, you now know there's historical basis for it.
But even when lawyers get time away from the law firm factory, they are unable to relax. Under constant pressure to bill more and work faster on impossibly tight deadlines, lawyers today have a hard time shaking the crippling psychological effects of the hourly system. Partnoy writes that high level hourly employees are essentially enslaved by it:
They suffered from higher stress during downtime, and they worried more about having enough work. When work was available, they were tempted to work as much as possible. A vacation or a day off meant a loss of money. Other studies found that the problem got worse as people made more money, because they felt that their time was more valuable and therefore more scarce.
The solution, writes Partnoy, is to either compartmenalize your feelings or change the system: "If you're at your kid's soccer tournament, block out the idea that it is costing you a fortune." The other solution is to stop billing by the hour. "Professionals could instead charge a fee based on the service provided: a fixed amount to file a legal brief or complete an audit or repair a leak."
The second solution is the long term one but I'm not optimistic that it will happen anytime soon. Even though firms are increasingly doing alternative billings, I don't know any major firm where lawyers are free from the shackles of time sheets.
So I guess Big Law lawyers will just stay neurotic and depressed.