2022 National Wellness Study – Part IV: The Dark Side of the Billable Hour
This is the fourth post in our series on The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada published by the Université de Sherbrooke, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association in December 2022 (the “Report”).
In this post we will dive into the “dark side of billable hours” as explored in the Report. As you know, the billable hour model is the traditional performance indicator used within legal practice. It sets a target of 1,500 billable hours per year on average in Canadian private practice. However, the Report concludes that despite its effectiveness in measuring economic success, this model poses significant risks and social consequences for the well-being of legal professionals.
As it turns out, billable hours don’t tell the whole story. According to the findings, billable hours only capture around 67.9% of the actual hours worked by legal professionals. Those with billable hour targets tend to put in an average of 54 hours per week, while their counterparts without such targets average around 47.1 to 48.4 hours per week. The Report found that the higher the target, the greater the number of hours worked, reaching an average of 65.9 hours per week for professionals with targets of 2,000 or more billable hours.
The Report asserts that a work schedule exceeding 50 hours per week is harmful to an individual’s health. This means that targets over 1,200 billable hours have a negative effect on our health and wellness, and this increases with the billable target. The Report explains that it is not the number or target itself that is problematic, but it is the pressure felt by legal professionals to meet the expectations and goals of their role that has the greatest impact.
The Report found that legal professionals who have difficulty reaching their targets often question their skills, their ability to meet the expectations of their practice, and their professional choices. As discussed in our , the demands and time-consuming culture of the legal profession can delay individuals from starting families and it makes it difficult for them to prioritize personal and family lives outside of work.
Further, the billable hour system has the following negative effects:
-1% of legal professionals who have to bill more than 1,800 hours per year experience psychological distress;
-1% who have a target of 1,800 hours are affected by high levels of burnout;
-More than 30% of legal professionals with a billable target experience moderate to severe depressive symptoms; and
-37% are affected by anxiety symptoms of sufficient concern to seek medical attention.
And – as it turns out – it doesn’t get better with experience. The pressure of billable hours on our health and general wellbeing does not diminish overtime. Instead, for those with more than 15 years of experience, the billable hour framework gradually drains their resources while being associated with greater psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and feelings of burnout.
The Report concludes that urgent action is needed within the legal community and organizations using the billable hour business model. The Report emphasizes the importance of initiating and developing alternative business models.
While the legal profession has operated on a billable hour system for decades, the Report showcases the dark realities of that system and the negative impact minute-by-minute tracking can have on one’s health, success and life. It calls for an alternative model – one that balances the financial system and success associated with the billable hour model and that which values the mental and physical health of legal professionals. The Report calls for a change to the status quo, something we must consider in order to safeguard the health of our nation’s lawyers.
About the Authors
Karina Alibhai is an associate with Harper Grey LLP and works with their Commercial Litigation and Construction Groups. Karina joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2020, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2021. She received her bachelor’s degree, from McGill University in 2017, where she focused her studies on International Development. Karina attended law school at Thompson Rivers University and graduated in 2020.
Grace Smyth-Bolland is an associate with Harper Grey LLP and works with their Business Law Group. Grace joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2021, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2022. She completed her law and philosophy degrees at Adelaide University in 2015 and 2016. Grace immigrated to Canada from Australia in 2017 after spending some time in South America, the US, and the Middle East