Billable hours not the only yardstick

 Lawyers being called to the bar on Aug 27, 2016.
Lawyers being called to the bar on Aug 27, 2016. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Some law firms said that they do not put too much focus on enforcing billing targets for young lawyers, as it can be counterproductive and may not be a good reflection of their capabilities.

Most firms bill clients by the hour. Lawyers' bonuses can, depending on the firm, be based on their billable hours.

What started as a transparent technique for charging clients has been "transformed into a powerful tool for measuring and controlling the work of employee solicitors", said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. "Time is money and an increasing emphasis on the latter means young lawyers are expected to sacrifice more of the former, with the only real outer boundary, it seems, being that there are only 24 hours in a day."

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi called for a mindset change so "partners of a law firm aren't out to exploit every single billable hour they can get out of a lawyer". He added: "They need to invest in lawyers as people. To see them as long-term resources rather than as short-term factors of production."

Mr Tan Chong Huat, managing partner of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, said: "Focusing solely on billable hours without paying attention to developing young lawyers to be wholesome practitioners will be missing the point."

SACRIFICING MORE TIME

Time is money and an increasing emphasis on the latter means young lawyers are expected to sacrifice more of the former, with the only real outer boundary, it seems, being that there are only 24 hours in a day.

CHIEF JUSTICE SUNDARESH MENON, on the practice of billable hours.

It is one of many yardsticks, he said. Others include how a lawyer meets clients' needs and how he can grow and sustain his practice.

Lawyer Gloria James-Civetta said the practice of billable hours is more strictly enforced in big firms and corporate law firms.

At her mid-sized firm dealing with family and criminal law, junior lawyers have a guideline to bring in three times their monthly pay in revenue. She said: "It's just to gauge if they can handle a certain amount of work. We also look at abilities such as how they draft an affidavit, how they take instructions from clients and their time management skills."

Amelia Teng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Billable hours not the only yardstick'. Print Edition | Subscribe