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Billable hour works against women, lawyer argues

The billable hour fosters a culture of presenteeism and inherently discriminates against female lawyers who go on parental leave or have caring responsibilities, according to a lawyer.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 31 October 2022 Big Law
Billable hour works against women, lawyer argues
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Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of the inaugural Women in Law Forum 2022, Her Lawyer founder and principal lawyer Courtney Bowie said that the billable hour and the budgets associated with it work to the detriment of women in the legal profession, particularly those who have caring responsibilities or take career breaks.

“The billable hour just has so many problems,” she said.

“It roughly translates to ‘put your bum on a seat and produce results’. If you don’t do this at the same rate as your male peers because they don’t have the same caring responsibilities as you, you will not be paid the same and you will not be treated the same because you are seen as less valuable to the firm.


“Valuing a team member’s contribution based on their billable hour is inherently discriminatory.”

Ms Bowie will participate in a panel session at the Women in Law Forum about why the billable hour must die, the innovative billing models that could replace it, and how the legal profession could create a culture that nurtures female talent and breaks down gender bias, barriers, and the boys’ club.

Billable hour deters innovation

Aside from being discriminatory against women, Ms Bowie argued that the billable hour does not reward innovation or efficiency.

“For example, if I have to draft a contract and it has historically taken five hours to complete, but I figure out a way to automate some of the processes so that it takes me half that time, it’s not really to my benefit to use that new process because now, I can only enter 2.5 hours into my timesheet and budget,” she explained.

“Whereas someone who does it the slow way would receive five hours of billable work.”

As such, Ms Bowie proposed replacing the billable hour with more innovative pricing models, including fixed fees, value-based pricing (which is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for areas like litigation), or subscription pricing.

“Subscription pricing is the cool new kid on the block in legal billing. I’ve seen it done in commercial law with great success,” she said.

“It offers on-demand legal support for more established businesses that don’t necessarily need lots of work done but may need someone on-demand to resolve licensing or staffing issues.”

Pay secrecy perpetuates gender pay gap

Alongside the billable hour, Ms Bowie said lack of pay clarity in law firms spurred by pay secrecy clauses is perpetuating the gender pay gap, an “insidious” barrier impeding women’s ability to succeed in the profession.

“No one in a firm can disclose how much they earn. It’s impossible for women to know if they’re being paid the same or less than their male equivalent, and demand equity,” Ms Bowie said.

“Pay clarity should be standard across the board. I think we should do away with pay secrecy clauses altogether.”

Changing hearts and minds

Above all, achieving gender equality in the legal profession is a significant change management challenge that requires law firms to move beyond implementing a few strategies or tactics, Ms Bowie affirmed, adding that this could be particularly difficult for long-established firms.

“The difficulty with long-established firms is that they hide behind tradition and entrenched practices, reasoning that they’re important to maintaining integrity,” Ms Bowie mused.

“That stops people from questioning why something has always been done in a certain way. I think that’s why the pace of cultural change has been so glacial.”

Ms Bowie suggested that meaningful change requires decision-makers and partners to change their hearts and minds, and their attitudes.

“Unless all the policies and strategies are encouraged and incorporated by the people who run the firm, there will be no meaningful change,” Ms Bowie warned.

Alternatively, instead of fighting for a seat at the table at other law firms, Ms Bowie advised female lawyers to “create your own table by starting your own firms”.

“There is no lack of ability, resources, market demand, or community that could stop you from breaking out of those systemic barriers in the workplace and branching out on your own,” Ms Bowie said.

“There are so many examples of firms that are creating amazing workplace cultures that are bringing about many benefits, including gender equality.”

To hear more from Courtney Bowie about how the billable hour hampers women’s legal careers and how they could break out and create their own table, come along to the Women in Law Forum 2022 on Thursday, 24 November, at Grand Hyatt, Melbourne.

Click here to book your place and make sure you don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

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