Non-Billable Work – Why Should I Do it?
For me, non-billable work has always been a struggle and it always seems to be in competition with billable hours. This feeling is personally driven by the well-known fact that billable work reaps a monetary reward. It drives compensation and so non-billable activity generally takes a back seat. I expect I’m not alone in my struggle. Additionally, I think women have historically taken on more of what might be seen as the “office house-work” tasks in a law firm which have gone and continue to go unnoticed in the compensation process. So how can we change this mindset?
In researching this issue I came across a paper published in the Texas Law Review “The Cost of Non-Billable Work” written by Martha M. Ertman. This paper is a very dense read but for me it was worth it. The author put into perspective some of what I have not been able to articulate for myself. She discusses the disparity between the non-billable work performed by women and men and the overall invisibility of the non-billable hour. She also describes the importance or value of the non-billable hour and how it, in and of itself, can create profit and productivity if appropriately acknowledged. Ms. Ertman coins the very apt phrase “office house-work” and drives home the need to truly make this work visible. It needs to be recognized and compensated in a way that makes it more equal to the billable hour.
She also argues that the concept of non-billable work needs to be rewritten to acknowledge it as real work. It is this particular insight that captured my attention. Changing your mindset and acknowledging the non-billable hour as real valuable work can surely decrease the anxiety or guilt associated with this necessary aspect of practice.
But keeping your firm going is not the only reason non-billable work is important. I recently had the pleasure of listening to Madam Justice Wendy Baker present at the CBA WLF Annual Meeting. What struck me most about her narrative was the importance of her community work. Her dedication to the profession as a whole and the development of relationships outside of the billable hour.
If I could rewrite one aspect of my own practice after more than 30 years, I would commit to involving myself more in the legal community as well as work more consciously to benefit society as a whole. I am not saying I have not done my share of this kind of work over my practice, particularly over recent years, but if I could give one piece of advice to the younger generations of lawyers I would suggest you footprint Madam Justice Baker’s comments to the extent possible. Become involved, forge relationships and develop as a whole person. The outcome – you will become a superior lawyer who is better able to provide a well-rounded service to your clients.
As expressed by Madam Justice Baker, investing the time comes with many benefits. When I think of those benefits and define non-billable work as real work with overarching productivity attached to it, I can see that work as a valuable part of my practice and not a chore.
I encourage every young lawyer to embrace the non-billable hour. Do it with multiple goals in mind and I promise you that you will reap the benefits.