Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at University of Melbourne Critical of Billable Hours Scenario


I remember sitting in a performance review one year where my supervising partner attended with one sheet of paper – a printout of my billings for the year. At the end of a year of long hours and hard work, everything I had given the firm was reduced to one sheet of numbers – if my time didn’t directly result in money made by the firm, it was of no interest to them …. (‘guera’, post on The Legal Soapbox, 23 December 2007)

A June, 2008 study entitled “The Elephant in the Room”: Working-time Patterns of Solicitors in Private Practice in Melbourne” by Iain Campbell, Jenny Malone and Sara Charlesworth and published by the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law (CELRL) at the University of Melbourne School of Law, examines the work-time patterns of lawyer/solicitors in private practice in Australia. Utilizing demographic studies by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, interviews with practitioners, former practitioners and human relations managers in law firms, various documents and legal blog postings, the paper rises to the challenge of examinng the dominate work-time billiable hour scenario and the tendency of many solicitors to leave the practice of law.

Synopsized by Australian Policy Online and published on the CELRL website, the paper finds, in pertinent part, that the billable hour scenario has become more of a tool for controlling and managing employee lawyer/solicitors rather than a method of merely billing clients, thereby promoting a pattern of long working hours. The study concluded a need for a more humane system of employee relations in law firms.

This is an industry where you work long hours, but get rewarded for it down the track, if you don’t burn out in the meantime….(Amanda, HR manager in a large law firm)

A 2002 report of the American Bar Association also suggested that over-reliance on billable hours has produced unfortunate, “unintended consequences”. Australian literature suggests the same, emphasizing quantity hours, rather than quality of service, in an industry specifically service oriented. Citing long hours, limited access to flex-time and part-time work (as well as work of inferior interests when reduced working hours were available), along with stalled career progression in the face of billable hour requirements, the paper suggests that while some law firms consider themselves to be lifestyle friendly, most law firms are being family-hostile, with burdensome billable hour requirements disproportionately affecting women, but being bad for male solicitors as well.

Many thanks to the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at the University of Melbourne and Policy Online for making this report available. The entire text is available for download below.

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