Let's us say your hypothetical cousin Emily gets accepted into Vanderbilt University's School of Law. Should you rejoice or despair? If law school leads to working in a large law firm, which is often the only viable option for graduates, Emily's future might not look as bright as you think.
For one thing, lawyers in large firms tend to have very low job satisfaction ratings, with a life driven by the billable hour being the main culprit of discouragement. That's because today's law firm makes its money by billing clients by the hour. As the Yale Law School Career Development Office points out: "In order for you to be profitable to your firm, you must make enough money from your billable hours not only to cover your salary and your overhead, but also to generate revenue for the firm. It's not a complicated equation-the more hours you bill, the more revenue for the firm. As a result, the incentive is to keep you working and billing your time." It's no wonder that young attorneys in large firms find themselves becoming slaves to the billable hour.
Large law firms also tend to place more distance between the managing attorneys and their young associates. Because of this lack of personal contact, tracking billable hours becomes the most efficient way to keep tabs on the work of these young attorneys. Therefore, the best way to get the attention of your superiors is to bill more hours.
Enslavement to billable hours has not always been the normative law firm culture, but the recent rise of large firms, some with more than 200 lawyers on staff, changed all that. Back in the early 1960s, as Notre Dame law and theology professor M. Cathleen Kaveny points out in her article on the billable hour culture, only 38 U.S. firms had more than 50 lawyers; today, more than 500 firms are at least that large. Also during the '60s, attorneys at large firms billed about 1,500 hours annually on average. Today they average 2,000 hours a year, which requires working 10 hours a day, six days a week.
For lawyers on the ever-elusive and competitive partnership track, that means that they have very little or no time for family, friends, or public service. Moreover, lawyers in large firms are tempted to reduce and value all of life in relation opening up space for billable time. Why not eat lunch at your desk while you bill hours? Why not work through your kids' soccer games and dinner with the family? They'll understand. Becoming a partner is really important, right?
Because of law school-related debt, much of this culture is sadly unavoidable. In order to pay back loans, many young attorneys are driven to practice law in large firms where the earning potential is greater. This is how many get trapped. In the end, in light of the billable hour-standard, perhaps you should be sobered by cousin Emily's acceptance to Vanderbilt's law school. It could be the beginning of well-paid, prestigious, and possibly miserable life.