Billable hours and attorney stress: why the relationship isn’t as clear as it seems

More billable hours or a happier life?

For countless lawyers, it feels like an impossible choice. Whether they’re keeping their practices afloat or seeking to grow, legal professionals of all kinds struggle to record as much productive time as they need to reach their goals. In fact, the average attorney bills just 2.5 hours per day. And that’s while working full-time—or, in many cases, in excess of 50 or 60 hours per week.

All of which can make time off or “work-life balance” seem like fantasies. It’s perhaps not surprising that lawyers often experience high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

This has led some within the profession, including the State Bar of New York, to call for caps on billable hours, or for firms to adopt different models for measuring attorney productivity.

At issue is not only a person’s well-being but also the ways stress can compromise decision-making, putting a lawyer’s reputation and clients at risk. According to UK-based legal mental health charity LawCare:

“We know that stress contributes to raised levels of cortisol and other hormones, which negatively affect the brain’s ability to function and process information. Lawyers experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression can find it difficult to concentrate, pay attention to detail or interact with colleagues. […] Research from the USA has shown that lawyers with poor mental health have poorer ethical decision-making. Mistakes made by lawyers can be costly to firms and negatively impact their reputation[.]”

Others say the problem isn’t with billable hours, but poor practice management.

Vanderbilt law professor Larry Bridgesmith writes that the legal industry uses billable hours as “scapegoats” for failures to properly scope work and establish trust with clients:

“Billable hours are not to blame. We are.

Who’s we? Those of us in law firm management who have used billable hours on which to base our budgets, incentivize performance, measure success, and identify our heroes.

Billable hours are such an easy metric. The more we have, the better. They demonstrate dedication. They reflect success because they suggest popularity and value. They generate revenue (even though not necessarily profits). The best lawyers have lots of them because their clients want their time and are willing to pay for it… sometimes.


However, the economic debate ignores the obvious. The entire billable hour system depends on integrity and trust.”

Regardless, it’s clear that legal professionals face immense pressure to be productive, and recent signs indicate a worsening impact on attorneys’ mental health.

Fortunately, there are simple steps any attorney can take to improve productivity—and, yes, live a happier life—without taking on more work. Learn how smart legal outsourcing can transform a small or solo practice.

What are your thoughts about billable hours? Should the legal industry rethink performance measurement? Have tips on improving productivity?

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