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A wake-up call for law firms

The evidence shows that the billable hour model is harmful to the health of lawyers. It's time to come up with some solutions.

Billable hours in a blur

The disturbing results of a recent Canadian study on wellness in the legal profession should force law firm leaders to take a serious look at their own law firms, say experts. 

The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada showed that more than half of the respondents reported experiencing psychological distress and burnout. The research also revealed that lawyers, particularly in their first years of practice, suffer from high levels of depression, stress and alcohol and drug use. 

Glen M. Hickerson, KC, says the health challenges facing members of the legal profession did not come as a surprise to him, but the magnitude of the problem did.

"We knew the weather was bad, but we didn't know it was a hurricane," says Hickerson, who chairs the CBA's Well-being Subcommittee and is a trial lawyer with Wilson Laycraft Barristers & Solicitors in Calgary.


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Hickerson was especially struck by the finding that almost one in four lawyers have considered suicide.

"We knew it was a high proportion and disproportionate to the general population before, but we didn't know it was that high," he says. "You're pretty much guaranteed that someone you are encountering regularly in practice has been in that position."

The study also found that more than 57 % of legal professionals surveyed have experienced psychological distress and more than 35 % have had anxiety. 

"People are being actively harmed by their jobs," says Hickerson. "It becomes an expectation of the job – it's institutionalized – that you are going to be hurt by this job. If this were a widget-making factory, there would be a health and safety investigation pretty quickly, and that factory would be shut down."

Tom Ullyett, a public service lawyer who has served as deputy minister and deputy attorney-general at the Yukon Department of Justice, calls the study's results sobering. 

"The legal profession is a high-risk profession – high risk for depression, high risk for other mental health issues," says Ullyett, who represents Yukon on the CBA's national board. 

Concern about billable hours was one of the notable findings of the study, which was completed by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke with funding from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the CBA. More than 85% of legal professionals with a billable hour target of at least 1,200 hours a year reported they felt pressure to meet that target.

Among the recommendations from the national wellness study, published following the report’s release, is the removal of the billable hour targets for legal professionals in their first two years of practice. The report also recommends reviewing the billable hour system altogether and looking at the possibility of promoting alternative models that are more conducive to maintaining the health of legal professionals

Ken Armstrong, KC, associate counsel with Icon Law Group in Vancouver, says he was surprised that it took just 1,200 billable hours a year – roughly five a day – before lawyers began to feel stressed. 

"That was an eye-opener," says Armstrong, the British Columbia representative on the CBA national board. "Why is 1,200 billable hours so stressful? It's probably because there are also hundreds of other non-billable hours required."

The study, released in October and followed in December with recommendations, found that less than 70% of hours worked by participants were billable. 

Armstrong says the research findings should jolt law firm leaders into action to ensure their lawyers are not struggling. 

"I like to keep the human in human resources," he says. "As a law firm leader, I think it's important to remember that all our staff aren't commodities. While they are obviously our biggest asset, they are people with real-life challenges, with friends, family, and activities, and we need to be respectful of that."

The billable hour model is built on the assumption that lawyers are healthy, willing and able to perform tasks for their clients, says Ullyett.

"You are not going to be successful as a manager of lawyers if you're not paying attention to their mental health and not paying attention to what allows people to flourish and thrive versus what drags them down so they're going to go home and drink a bottle of wine a night," he says.

According to Hickerson, law firm leaders need to realize that simply organizing a lunchtime yoga class or putting on a mindfulness video will not solve the mental distress crisis in the legal profession.

"It's going to involve some hard choices," he says. "Billable hours, particularly high billable hour targets or quotas, are very harmful and pretty much nothing can be done to fix the damage that causes. It really is causing trauma."

Many law firms have a culture of hard work that comes at the expense of their associates' ability to take time off and spend time with their families, Hickerson says. 

"Some partners continue to have the expectation that they can insist that the associates will give up their weekends and come in to work even if it is their kid's birthday or their anniversary," he says. "That has a cost. You are chewing into the ability of that person to continue to do their work. You can only do that so many times."

It's in the law firm's best interest to ensure that their employees are thriving, says Armstrong. 

"If law firm leaders are mindful of wellness in their firm, they are probably going to have better retention than a law firm that is all about grinding every last billable minute out of every billing resource," he says. "The cost of replacing a lawyer is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars between lost momentum, the actual lost time of the people doing the recruitment, and the delayed productivity when you onboard their replacement."

Law firms can also help reduce the stigma around mental illness by promoting employee assistance programs through their benefits package or provincial law society and also by respecting their lawyers' mental health, Armstrong says.

"We need to ensure that we are being respectful of people's needs if they have a mental health illness requiring accommodations and that we treat that the same way that we would if they had a physical illness that requires some sort of accommodations," he says. "As lawyers, we use our minds. Why wouldn't we respect that our minds need some medical focus as well?"