Billable hours. Utilisation. Realisation. Outstanding timesheets. Relative performance. Aged WIP. Lock-up days. Competitor benchmarking. Net promoter score.
Firms torture their lawyers by cooking-up ever more ridiculous metrics and raising existing ones to stratospheric levels. 2400+ billable hours per year is the new normal for New York based associates in white-shoe firms. And it’s not just internal metrics lawyers have to fret over. There’s perennial concern about submissions to the latest firm rankings, with lawyers falling into a year-long mourning should their coveted band-rating fall.
Lawyers lives are dominated by metrics. Worse is they’ve been force-fed for years that it’s all their fault if they’re not ‘performing’ at the increasingly-impossible standard demanded. It’s no surprise then that levels of job dissatisfaction, burnout, presenteeism and depression in the legal industry are reaching new highs.
‘The Tyranny of Metrics’ is not a book about lawyers. Its author, Jerry Muller, is a Professor of History and writes for a general audience. Yet Professor Muller’s academic perspective expertly skewers the law firm cult of quantification. His core messages are sure to resonate with lawyers:
- Things that are capable of measurement are not always worth measuring.
- Numbers do not replace judgement.
- Time spent obsessing over metrics is a distraction from more important things.
- The process of measuring something affects your measurements.
- Metrics can be gamed.
Lawyers are expert in manipulating their metrics.
Client won’t pay for an internal conference? Record the time as something else. Make sure to round-up to the nearest billable unit. Never use the non-chargeable action codes in the timekeeping software. Charge your time anyway despite the misunderstood instructions/duplication of work product/incorrect advice given. “Perusing emails”. Unnecessarily brief new lawyers on the matter to increase the client’s bill. Forget to apply the client’s standard discount or rate-sets. Make sure to record additional time to pro-bono matters because it’s on the firm.
What unfathomable heresy (!)
It’s an inevitable outcome that happens daily when the legal profession’s opinion on ‘what makes a great lawyer’ is badly warped to equate excellence with gargantuan monthly billings. Yet despite being unethical, cause for dismissal and even disbarment, many lawyers have normalised such behaviour. Others are wilfully blind to the issue. It does, after all, make their billables look fantastic. Morality, it seems, is relative.
‘The Tyranny of Metrics’ is a must-read for all lawyers. It comes at a critical time. Clients are demanding firms ‘do more with less’ and alternative legal services providers and legal technology start-ups are becoming viable substitutes to traditional legal services providers. Unless metric obsession is addressed in the legal profession, traditional firms will sleepwalk into oblivion. Clients are less understanding of overcharging. Talented lawyers are noticing there are alternatives to daily grind in a metric-driven law firm. Nimbler, innovative firms driven by technology – not overtime – is the future.
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