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A young lawyer’s case for scrapping the billable hour

The billable hour has had its time in the sun, and it’s cast a dark shadow that we can no longer ignore, writes Stefanie Costi.

user iconStefanie Costi 07 September 2023 SME Law
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I’ve been around the block in the legal profession long enough to know that what’s presented on the surface doesn’t always match what’s brewing underneath. Behind the slick suits, the courtroom theatrics, and the aura of professionalism, there’s a festering cancer eating away at the soul of our profession: workplace bullying.

And believe me when I say that it’s not just a side effect; it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem. A problem that goes by a seemingly innocent name: the billable hour.

Let’s cut the crap – we’re all stuck in this billable-hour circus. It’s the yardstick we’re measured by – a cold number slapped onto every second of our day. But what’s the real price? It’s a toxic breeding ground where bullies rule, all in the name of hitting those damn billable targets.


The billable hour is like a two-faced monster. On one side, it’s supposed to measure our efficiency, our worth as legal guns. On the flip side, it’s a petri dish for fear, aggression and hostility. The pressure to meet or exceed those billable hour targets is intense. It’s like an invisible whip cracking over our heads, pushing us to prioritise quantity before quality, to forsake camaraderie for cutthroat competition. That’s where bullying finds its groove – in this hellhole of pressure.

However, the billable hour insanity doesn’t just stop at numbers. It seeps into every nook and cranny of our work lives, especially the power dynamics. In a world where seniority is tied to billable hours and promotions are doled out based on gaming the system, there’s a dangerous hierarchy that forms. Senior partners become untouchable overlords, and junior lawyers their pawns. It’s like a modern-day dictatorship, with bullying as the whip to keep everyone in line.

Let’s not kid ourselves about perfectionism, either. In a world where one wrong move can cost us billable hours and screw up our reputations, the pressure to be flawless is suffocating. But let’s get real: nobody’s perfect. Screw-ups are human, and they’re meant to teach. Instead, they’re treated as fodder for bullying. Junior lawyers are terrified to admit mistakes, scared of how they’ll be seen by their higher-ups. That’s when the bullies have a field day – in the silence and shadows.

But what really stings? The toll it takes on our mental health. The constant rat race for billable hours, combined with the inherent stress of legal work, pushes us to the brink. Burnout, anxiety, and depression are our constant companions. And guess what? Bullies can sense weakness from a mile away. They prey on those who are already struggling, using their vulnerabilities as ammunition for their twisted games.

Breaking the chains of silence is hard. It’s like a stranglehold on our throats, choking back the words that need to be said. That’s why legal organisations need to step up, providing safe channels for reporting incidents without fear of retaliation. It’s time for us to demand that the bullies be held accountable.

And it’s not just about reporting incidents; it’s about changing the culture from the ground up. It’s about redefining success.

Our worth as legal professionals should not be solely determined by billable hours. It should be about our dedication, our ethics, and our ability to work together. It’s about making room for mentorship, support, and collaboration. A lawyer’s success should be measured not just by how many hours they bill, but by the positive impact they make on their clients, their colleagues, and the legal community as a whole.

We need a revolution in the way we view success in the legal profession. We need to prioritise our mental health, acknowledge our mistakes, and stand up against bullying. We need to see through the illusion that the billable hour is the be-all and end-all of our worth. It’s time to take the power back, to reshape our workplaces into spaces that foster growth, inclusivity, and empathy.

In the end, it’s not just about putting an end to bullying; it’s about dismantling the very system that feeds it. The billable hour has had its time in the sun, and it’s cast a dark shadow that we can no longer ignore. It’s time for change, for a profession that’s built on the foundations of justice, ethics, and respect for every member of our team. Let’s strip away the power from the bullies, redefine success, and build a future where the billable hour is just a footnote in a much larger story of progress and humanity.

Stefanie Costi is a lawyer who empowers victims of workplace bullying to take decisive action and educates organisations about its impact and preventive measures. Through her advocacy, Stefanie strives to create healthier and more respectful work environments where everyone can thrive without fear. You can find her here.

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