Tick – tock.  The “billable hour” determines so much in the lives of many professionals, including lawyers.  Many have to “keep time”.  Time keeping accounts for how many lawyers spend their time doing their work, factors into how much their clients get charged, directly impacts how most large law firms generate income, and plays an important role in determining lawyer pay, bonuses, advancement, and even retention.  The billable hour impacts a lawyer’s family, leisure time, hobbies, recreation, rest, recovery, and among many other aspects of life, sleep.  Most lawyers who keep time do so in terms of 6 minute intervals.  The “one-tenth hour” – 360 seconds – benchmark governs quite a bit of human, intellectual, emotional, and financial capital in the lives of American lawyers, their firms, and their clients.  These points should not surprise any of these players.

But, “billing time” for professional services, as described in this post, may have spillover effects in the time-keeper’s personal life.  Devotion to the timesheet impacts making decisions about personal time.  Prior legal commentary (Kaveny, 2001) has argued that this can affect lawyers and how they experience or participate in family birthdays, holidays, and volunteer work.  The billable hour mentality, so argued there, can alienate the lawyer from those important events.  Such time-keeper lawyers have difficulty grasping “a noncommodified understanding of the meaning of time.”

A team of organizational behavior researchers extended the insights of that legal commentary, and in an attempt to fill a gap in the research, recently investigated how billing time spilled over into how people make decisions about time in outside of workplace contexts.  Their results show that organizational practices can change the psychology of how people view and make decisions about personal time outside of the work context.  This post identifies an emerging stream of research with implications for individuals who keep time, i.e. lawyers and their organizations, highlights the research study featured in this post and describes what the researchers did, notes their results, and discusses implications for lawyers and their firms.  Tick – tock.

The researchers used a market-pricing decision logic as a core concept in this research.  This means that when a person monitors activities in order to bill time, a precise accounting of a unit, i.e. time, measures value, i.e. price of labor.  Prior experimental studies have shown that when this logic gets used, people will put forth less effort or spend less time when they receive no direct compensation for their work.  This research extended that idea and tested this hypothesis:  “when a market-pricing decision logic for time is made salient by billing or otherwise accounting for time, individuals should be less willing to volunteer their time.”

The second core concept of this research involved “volunteering”.  What does “volunteering” mean?  Simply put, volunteers spend time on unpaid activities that benefit others.  Prior studies have shown that people who get pressured to volunteer have lower intentions to do it in the future.  Also, financial rewards undermine volunteering.  One example relates to blood donations.  Blood donors who received rewards associated with decreased likelihood to donate compared to committed donors who did not receive offers of reward.

Five experiments examined how keeping time affects a person’s decision to allocate time to volunteer activities.  A brief description of the five experiments, the results of each, and selected discussion comments about them follow:

  • Study 1 involved graduates from an “elite American university law school” who participated two times:  one week before graduation and 5 months after beginning work as lawyers.  Almost two-thirds of the participants used a timesheet or otherwise had to account for their time at work.  The researchers measured willingness to volunteer and assess their preferences for volunteering time relative to donating money.  While the data showed some change in willingness to volunteer between graduation and five months after beginning work, “respondents who billed their time were significantly less willing to volunteer their time”.  In consideration of giving time versus giving money, the analysis showed that “respondents who billed their time were significantly more interested in donating money rather than time to charity”.
  • Study 2 considered causality.  Non-lawyers, undergraduate commerce students, participated in this experiment which involved a mock consulting task.  Some participants kept track of their time in six minute increments and others did not.  After completing the consulting task, the researchers surveyed the participants about future time allocations, e.g. paid work, socializing with family and friends, personal time, leisure, and volunteer work.  The participants also responded to a measure of willingness to volunteer.  Analyses showed that participants in the billing time condition anticipated spending fewer hours per week volunteering.  The billing time group showed also that they were less willing to volunteer.  Billing time, according the researchers’ interpretation of the their results, “affects attitudes and behavioral intentions to volunteer”.
  • Studies 1 and 2 considered the effects of time keeping / billing on attitudes and behavioral intentions to volunteer.  Studies 3, 4, and 5 studied the effects of billing on actual volunteering behavior.
  • Study 3 utilized participants similar to Study 2.  They engaged in the same consulting task, but for a shorter period of time.  Instead of predicting the future, the opportunity to provide help to the community relations office of the university by volunteering to stuff envelopes.  The volunteer activity did not relate to the work for which the participants billed their time.  This work also lacked intrinsic motivation, i.e. intrinsically interesting.  The results showed that participants who billed their time using a timesheet spent less time on volunteer tasks and did less volunteer work.  The next study considered intrinsic motivation.
  • Under a task paradigm similar to the earlier one, the participants in Study 4 experienced a volunteer activity and then also received an an opportunity to take up to five envelopes with postage which would enable them to send a sick child a get well card.  The number of envelopes taken constituted the behavioral measure of volunteering.  The results showed that although the participants in both the billing and nonbilling groups enjoyed the make a child well letter writing activity, i.e. intrinsic motivation activity, the participants in the billing group took fewer envelopes away from the session to write get well wish letters to sick children.  No evidence showed that exposure to billing changed how the participants psychologically enjoyed the prosocial activity of making a child smile.  Study 5 considered the impact of how people who bill their time value money.
  • Study 5 utilized business students who performed a consulting task.  Some billed their time.  Others did not.  They had a 10 minute break before responding to a questionnaire.  Before beginning their participation in the study, and as a prerequisite to participation, they responded to a questionnaire which gauges overall importance of financial success and its relative importance to non-financial considerations.  Additionally, the researchers assessed the participants’ self-efficacy, i.e. coping, an internal attribution of success, and their self-determination, i.e. their awareness of feelings, sense of self, and feeling of choice with respect to behavior.  After analysis, the results showed that individuals in the billing condition spent less time volunteering than their counterparts.  Levels of self-efficacy and self-determination did not account for the difference between the groups.  Valuation of money impacted the volunteering activities and those who valued money more highly had greatest susceptibility to the spillover effect of the market-pricing decision rule, i.e. billing time.

The main findings of the research as noted by the authors include the following:

  • “Taken together, the survey and experimental data show that billing time promoted an economic evaluation of time that undermined participation in worklike activities lacking monetary profit.”
  • Keeping time and using a time sheet does not necessarily undermine a person’s sense of autonomy, but “billing time does affect how people come to understand and comprehend their time and its relationship to money in ways that are psychologically consequential.”
  • “The results are consistent with the idea that organizational practices can change the psychology of how people view time and work in ways that have consequences for choices and behaviors outside of the immediate work context.”

This research study provides empirical support for the “insight” provided by Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny (2001).  The professor wrote an essay in 2001 about lawyer unhappiness, its connection with the “billable hour”, and her plea that the profession loosen the “grip of the billable hours framework”.  Long hours, tedium, and the need for constant attention to the labor at hand describes the lot of physicians, clerics, and academics, in addition to lawyers.  Yet, the others do not, according to the professor, experience the same level of professional dissatisfaction nor do they seem as unhappy as lawyers.  Professor Kaveny’s hypothesis about the cause of lawyers’ unhappiness, deemed “insight” by the researchers here, stated in part:  “A neglected but important cause of lawyers’ unhappiness is not the amount of time they work, but rather the way in which they understand the time they spend working, which is directly related to the manner in which they are forced to account for it.”

Professor Kaveny warned about and considered how to “mitigate the harmful gravitational force of a view of time is embedded in the very structure of the legal workday” of many lawyers.  The professor in her 2001 essay posited that an investigation of alternatives to the dominant view of time in professional life – billable hour – rooted in religious and other ways of interpreting the nature and purpose of human life hoped to spark a discussion about developing alternatives to the grip of the billable hour.  The very recent empirical findings of the organizational behavior researcher featured in this post should give lawyers, and others who keep time, greater motivation now to pause, re-think, and adjust somehow so that grip of the billable hour does not become tighter and leave any more ligature marks.  Why?  The concern about the “billable hour”:

“I believe, however, that this way of calculating the value of legal work does more subtle – and more serious – damage to the attorneys forced to bow to its demands than that inflicted by overwork.  The regime of the billable hour presupposes a distorted and harmful account of the meaning and purpose of a lawyer’s time, and therefore, the meaning and purpose of a lawyer’s life, which, after all, is lived in and through time.  The account, which ultimately reduces the value of time to money, is deeply inimical to human flourishing.  Because large firm life can press many lawyers to internalize the commodified account of their time, they may find themselves increasingly alienated from events in their lives that draw upon a different and non-commodified understanding of time, such as family birthdays, holidays, and volunteer work.  The failure of lawyers to participate actively in their family lives and civic communities may not only be attributable to the fact that their heavy work schedules do not give them the time to do so, but it may also be that lawyers imbued with the ethos of the billable hour have difficulty grasping a non-commodified understanding of the meaning of time that would allow them to appreciate the true value of such participation.  As a consequence, they may eventually find that work is the only activity that has meaning for time.”

The research team mentioned many implications of their findings for future research.  These include important organizational citizenship behaviors critical to firm performance, but not part of the reward system; a host of activities such as family, child care, and household chores, which people may view differently as a function of billing time; and the tendency for lawyers to outsource worklike activities and nonwork activities, even though considered generally enjoyable activities.  Reinforcing the “insight” of Professor Kaveny’s essay which, in part, supplied theoretical background to their work, the researchers conclude their discussion by stating regarding time-keepers that “. . . billing time and the economic evaluation of time can cause individuals to make time allocation decisions that ignore other criteria important to their moral identity or even their personal utility, actually leaving them less happy.”

The “billable hour” has a strong grip on the legal profession.  Although not specifically discussed, clients, law, precedent, and ethics rules have relevance here, too.  The equation presents much difficulty.  The 360 seconds of the billable hour exact very high personal, interpersonal, and professional costs when all things get considered.  As shown by this research, in addition to his or her client, the lawyer seems to pay too dearly.  Does the relationship between lawyers and the billable hour need to change? How? You? Your client? Your firm?  This “relationship” seems to present a very serious issue for the profession.  Right?

Article Source:  DeVoe SE, & Pfeffer J (2010). The stingy hour: how accounting for time affects volunteering. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 36 (4), 470-83 PMID: 20363903.  See the webpage of Professor Sanford DeVoe here.  The article featured in this post may be accessed here.

Legal Scholarship:  Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny faculty webpage.  Scholarship here.  See and access the 2001 Article Billable Hours In Ordinary Time: A Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life, (the Baker-McKenzie Lecture in Ethics at Loyola University Chicago Law School), Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 33 (Fall 2001) 173-220.

Thank you.  Please visit again soon. Dan DeFoe JD, MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | www.adlitemsolutions.com |dan@adlitemsolutions.com | Blog www.psycholawlogy.com.  See you next time.

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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