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How Billable Culture in Law Firms Impacts Female Advancement

Posted by Women's Network Advisory Board on June 11, 2020

In many professions, advancement is based on hitting specific goals, client satisfaction and outcomes or seniority. The legal profession is one, however, that ties advancement and achieving status as a partner to the number of hours worked. A culture of “billable hours” is one that motivates and rewards employees based on hours logged. This model favors employees whose primary loyalty is to their profession (often at the expense of a maintaining a true work-life balance) and who are able to bring in greater income for the firms they represent. This often tips the scales in favor of male advancement in this industry.

According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, only 19% of equity partners in law firms are women and women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than their male colleagues. Women of color are even more underrepresented – while they make up 17% of entry-level positions at law firms, they represent only 6% of VP level positions and 3% of C-level positions. According to the report, law firms face much higher attrition than men at the equity partner level and this gender gap is much wider than in other industries.

In this article, we explore the gender inequities in law firm culture, whether the billable hours measure of success will change, if millennials will be the ones to change it and if remote work and the ability to stay connected during “off hours” helps or hinders females in law firms.

The Gender Bias Inherent in Law Firm’s Billable Hour Culture

Currently, billable hours are the metric for success in law firms. Based on this measure, some very good lawyers will not be deemed successful if they don’t have as many hours available to bill in the course of their day as someone else. Generally, as women spend more time on family responsibilities than their male counterparts, they are often put at a disadvantage when it comes to advancement, and in some cases even find they have to change their schedules or their career paths entirely, to balance their personal and professional responsibilities.

In addition to the challenges some female lawyers face when trying to log as many hours as their male counterparts, a further challenge for women, according to Kristin Shirahama, partner in Bowditch & Dewey LLP’s Estate, Financial & Tax Planning practice, is that “women lawyers report that they’re more often tapped for critical internal firm efforts, work that is viewed as less important as billable work for the purposes of compensation.”

Will Billable Hours Always Be King?

While there are many ways to contribute to the success and profitability of a firm, including training, mentoring and business development, if these initiatives aren’t viewed as valuable in the grand scheme of things, lawyers (in particular female lawyers being tasked with these non-client facing initiatives) will not want to spend time on them while their colleagues serving clients directly are the only ones getting ahead. Shirahama goes on to note that the notion “you get what you measure” contributes to this problem. For every hour a lawyer spends on an initiative that is not directly billable to a client, they are deemed less successful.

Not only is the advancement different between male and female lawyers, but the job satisfaction between male and females in law firms is too. According to a recent study conducted by the American Bar Association Journal and ALM Intelligence, 62% of male lawyers are satisfied with their opportunities for advancement as compared with 45% of female lawyers. There’s also major discrepancies between happiness at work between male and female lawyers—while only 5% of men were somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% of female respondents reported somewhat or extreme dissatisfaction.

Does the Ability to Work Remotely Help or Hurt?

The American Bar Association Journal report also commented on why female layers leave law firms and 58% cited caretaking commitments as a top reason. This is not surprising given that 54% of female lawyers cited arranging childcare to be their full responsibility, as compared with 1% of their male colleagues.

With the technology at our fingertips that keeps us constantly connected, and the surge in remote work recently amidst COVID-19, it is easy for female lawyers who may need to leave the office earlier than their colleagues to manage demands at home to sign back on later in the evenings to continue working or to work more regularly in a remote fashion. 78% of women in the report cite work from home policies as being important to advancing senior women, but does this set a dangerous precedent of being “always on” and lead to an expectation that regular overtime work?

Kristin Shirahama adds, “So much of what’s expected is from the clients, externally. Setting expectations with clients and referral sources is really the primary way to combat this. I support part-time work, flexible work hours, remote work and try to limit my after-hours emails, sometimes marking them ‘non urgent’ or saving them in my drafts file until Monday morning. Giving clients the assurance that you are available for emergencies but not available around the clock for routine matters is important.”

Will Millennials Change the Tide?

With a new generation of lawyers coming into the fold, will the focus on billable hours culture and some of the gender biases change? According to a survey done last fall by Above the Law, 61.6% of young lawyers think their generation is transforming law firm policies and culture for the better and nearly half say that “the current generation of law firm leadership has outstayed its effectiveness.”

In order to attract and retain millennials, who call work/life balance their top priority and the most important factor in evaluating potential employers (per the report), things will definitely have to change. Three quarters of young lawyers surveyed would trade a portion of their compensation for either more time off, a flexible work schedule, or a cut in billable hours.

In an age where flexibility and quality of life are paramount, law firms will likely be forced to change the status quo to keep pace with the demands of the future partners and firm leadership.