Overcoming The 6-Minute Life:
How And Why The Legal Profession Should Free Itself From Billable Hours
by Bentley J. Tolk
Reviewed by Russell A. Cline
Most lawyers earn their living by billing clients for services rendered, and most lawyers bill their clients based on the number of 'billable hours' spent on the client's case. In Overcoming the 6-Minute Life, Utah lawyer Bentley J. Tolk makes a persuasive case for the argument that the 'billable hour' system is responsible for much of the current dissatisfaction experienced by lawyers. Tolk also presents a number of ways to mitigate the negative effects of the 'billable hours' system, as well as alternatives thereto.
In discussing his topic, Tolk integrates an impressive amount of research, including literature from both the legal and popular press. For example, Tolk cites a number of empirical studies demonstrating the increasing problem of lawyer 'burn out,' the recent increases in the 'minimum billable hours' required at large and medium law firms, and how the two are related. One informal study, on 'why graduates of the Harvard Law School Class of 1990 were quitting the practice of law in droves,' observed that by the year 2000, one-half of that class was no longer working in law firms, and twenty-five percent were no longer practicing law. Another commentator noted that 'many new lawyers view themselves as being in a rat race where they are moving ahead without an end in sight. The work of billable hours becomes a monotonous, never-ending reality with no inherent meaning and with no opportunity to be free. . . . Many lawyers have arguably forgotten what it means to play or to experience joy.'
Tolk cites one commentator who stated that 'for each 100 hours that a lawyer bills over 1,500 hours in a given year, 10 percent of the lawyerÕs soul dies.' When a lawyer routinely leaves the office at 8:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m., his or her time with children, a spouse, or recreation becomes almost non-existent. Billing demands often become so all consuming that pro bono work, community service and other activities within the law firm cease to exist. Lawyers rarely have a lunch 'hour,' but will frequently 'wolf down' a sandwich in their office so as to 'make up' for missed billable time. Social outings and holidays seem like items on a checklist that need to be completed so that the lawyer can get back to work. When a friend or family member calls a lawyer during the day, the lawyer resents the intrusion since the missed billable time will have to be made up later. The lawyer begins to value himself or herself based on the number of billable hours he or she produces. He or she constantly has to justify his or her existence in terms of feeding the firmÕs bottom line through billable hours.
Tolk also discusses how billing by the hour often provides the wrong incentives. The system rewards inefficiency since the longer it takes to complete a task, the more the lawyer is paid, irrespective of the value of the work performed to the client. However, '[a] law firm is a business, and the lifeblood of that business has generally been the billable hour.' Tolk has a number of suggestions for how the interests of the firm and the client can be harmonized. Interestingly, Tolk makes a strong case for not under billing clients, arguing that such a practice usually does a disservice to both the client and the attorney.
Tolk also includes a section addressed to law students. As Tolk correctly notes, many law students have a 'rose-colored' view of working in a large law firm. He relates the story of a lawyer who left a large law firm for an academic position, only to find that most of his students wanted to join the same law firm that he and his former colleagues were so anxious to escape. Some law firms are also less than honest during the 'wining and dining' process of recruiting law students. As a result, some new lawyers are shocked by the demands that are suddenly placed upon their time.
In recent years, the starting salaries for new associates have increased dramatically at many large law firms. Tolk notes the irony in this trend, since each time that the salaries of starting associates in a law firm are raised, lawyers at all levels must bill more hours, since increases in billing rates have not been able to keep up with the increases in compensation for new associates. Tolk also dispels the popular myth that lawyers in large firms simply need to work hard for 7-10 years, and then they can live a balanced, affluent lifestyle for the rest of their careers. In fact, the 'treadmill' continues and is not diminished for senior lawyers and partners. Furthermore, many lawyers often spend most of what they make, and do not save much. This keeps many lawyers on the billing 'treadmill' well into their late 60Õs to make ends meet.
Tolk suggests a number of ways to control the negative effects of the '6-Minute Life.' These include setting specific hours to arrive at work and leave work, and other rules as to when work will be allowed to infringe on personal time. Once set, however, boundaries need to be strictly observed to prevent the demands of billable hours from engulfing other aspects of the lawyerÕs life. Similarly, the lawyer must abandon the concept that there can never be too many billable hours, and he or she must view billable hours as 'putting money in the bank.' Once the 'billable hours' account is built up (i.e., the lawyer is ahead of schedule), the lawyer has more flexibility in structuring his or her life.
Lawyers who focus on 'niche' practices (such as tax law, employment law, securities, or environmental law) are relatively more content than lawyers who are less specialized. Specialization provides the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from mastering an area of the law that one loves, and developing a reputation and client basis in a specialized area. 'Niche' practices also often lend themselves to 'value billing,' where the lawyer can bill a flat fee for a particular procedure, irrespective of how many 'billable hours' may be required. A lawyer's fee for services becomes tied more closely to the value produced, rather than the number of hours worked, which is inherently more satisfying. Tolk also addresses a number of alternatives to 'hourly billing,' including 'contingency billing,' 'value billing,' 'flat fees' and bonuses for success.
Overcoming The 6-Minute Life provides a thorough and well-written discussion of its topic. The audience includes any lawyer who bills clients for services rendered on an hourly basis, as well as every law student. TolkÕs writing style is brisk and clear and makes for a very easy read. The book is also well organized, and lends itself well to readers who like to'jump around.'
Tolk has also been unusually candid as to his personal struggles in balancing the '6-Minute Life' with personal and family demands. For example, Tolk discusses having to leave the events surrounding two family funerals early because of the pressures of billing time. His personal comments are a welcome addition that serves to illustrate and personalize many of the concepts he discusses.
Most importantly, the book addresses a very important topic to the legal profession. It serves as a cautionary tale to newer and more seasoned attorneys as to the physical and emotional toll that the 'billable hour' system can extract. It also provides insights and suggestions that are practical, useful and well worth considering. Tolk has set up a website at www.6minutelife.com, which provides additional information, for those interested in the topic. The book is currently available at that website or through e-mailing Tolk directly at email@example.com.