Off-target: Do lawyers have a choice?

A few weeks ago, I spent 5 days (Monday-Friday) playing cricket away from London on a tour. In the bar after our final game of the week, I asked one of my teammates if he was going in to work the following day. He works for a US firm in London and he was fiddling with his work-issued BlackBerry at the time, so I figured it was reasonable to ask, especially given that he had been out of the office for a few days, whether there was anything that would need his attention before the start of the next working week.

“Go into the office on a Saturday?!” he replied, incredulously, “No way. I hardly ever work weekends. I might do one or two every few months, but very rarely.”

I was confused, and asked him about the targets his firm sets and how high they were. “They’re massive,” he said, “but I’d rather have a life than slog my guts out to hit those targets. If we don’t meet our targets, we don’t get a bonus. But as I said, I’d rather have my time than more money.”

I wondered if this was really the way law worked, before doing some research into the billable hour practises of the firm in question. Theirs is a system of staggered targets and a sliding bonus scale which renders each individual’s additional remuneration entirely unique to them. It’s a system that has had some mixed reviews, but offers lawyers the opportunity to make a decision – do they value time or money more highly.

I realise that law is not like a sales job, where targets are everything. In one of my periods of work experience I was fortunate enough to be part of a legal team defending an unfair dismissal claim in an employment tribunal. The claim was brought by a former employee of a business which was based solely around target attainment as a means of gauging performance, and I listened for two days whilst the representatives of the company explained how the claimant’s performance had been unsatisfactory. Law is clearly not an industry like that, but before having the conversation I recounted at the start of this piece, I was under the impression that targets were fairly important. Perhaps in most firms they are. I’d certainly be interested to hear whether individuals in other firms could make the same choice not to go for the top bonus level.

Recently, Tim Bratton blogged about the importance of taking a proper holiday and not just a ‘worliday’.  In his piece, he wrote the following:

Perhaps in twenty years’ time when the workplace is full of people who have known such technology since childhood they won’t see it as a tool which allows them to work whilst on holiday.  It might be that those of us who knew corporate life pre-Blackberry have got this all wrong.

Maybe taking a stand against high billable hours targets is another part of that evolution. Some people may have seen the Yale University Law School investigation entitled “The Truth About The Billable Hour”. It shows the time commitment required to bill 2200 hours per year. Do law firms read things like that and think, “maybe we should reduce our targets slightly”? Perhaps lawyers themselves need to take that stand before the firms will drop the target levels, if indeed they are too high.

The system implemented by the firm my friend works for may well prove to be a one-off amongst law firms. But then again, it may yet become the blueprint for remuneration. Yes, it’s nice to have some extra money and to be rewarded for hard work. But perhaps the decision to forego a bonus in favour of not working every weekend is one that more lawyers will be able to take in years to come.

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