As I began to research the history of tracking billable hours, I discovered a fascinating debate about “selling time”. Here are a few of the interesting facts I found:
1.Billable hours were popularized by the American Bar Association to boost lawyer salaries when they began to fall below doctors and dentists in the 1950’s.
A 1958 ABA article argued that lawyers were terrible business men because so much of their time went unpayed. Billing by the hour would help them to earn more while going the extra mile to get a job done properly. At first, minimum hourly rates were add ons to bonuses recieved for a finished job. But by the 1970s things began to move in the direction of basing everything on billable hours alone.
2.Studies consistently show that most workers must spend three hours in the office for every two hours they bill. Since for most people, responding to emails, eating lunch, and traveling to meetings does not count as billable time.
Since law firms realized that they could make more money by logging more hours, throughout the past few decades they have gradually began hiking expectations for the hours put in by their associates and partners. In 1958 this expectation was set as 1300 hours in a year, the equivalant of a modern day lawyer working part-time.
3.Today the quotas have gone as high as 2200, which work out to 30,000 actual working hours or 12-13 hour days Mon-Fri with a 6-7 hour workday on Saturday.
The idea of tracking this much time has been greatly contested in recent years. Some say that the unreasonable expectations in tracked time results in tired and depressed workers, stress in relationships with clients, and an overall downfall to the culture of the law profession and other professions that bill by the hour.
4.In the 1980s a New York Lawyer made history by logging 27 hours for one day of work. He did this by counting the time he spent on a West bound plane flight in which he gained 3 hours of time.
Tracking billable hours was modeled after the idea of factories selling precise units of materials, leading some to believe that it is an outdated practice amongst 21st century knowledge workers. Still, for millions of workers across almost every industry, time tracking remains the most convenient and logical way to recieve payment.