While no one in his or her right mind yet concedes it, let’s just assume that the tides have turned and the billable hour is a thing of the past. What becomes of all the firm procedures and evaluation and promotion and compensation systems triggered or run by billable hours?
How do you tell your associates how much you expect them to work? What do you do about all those compensation systems–some affecting associate salaries and bonuses, but certainly many determining partner takehome–that require the input of some measure of billable hours–pro bono hours, firm management hours, marketing hours, hours of originated work, hours of work serviced, etc.?
As a Hildebrandt entry points out: "One thing is for certain… Bonuses based on the number of billable hours will have some unpleasant consequences in a fixed fee environment." In effect, firms will be caught paying their lawyers for the same inefficiencies that clients are complaining about. The efficient lawyers, with lower hours, will be the losers.
But changing incentives in an environment where there is no history of change can be challenging. Author Jim Collins suggests asking this question: "’What is the economic denominator that best drives our economic engine?" Every firm should be asking itself that question. Is it number of hours? Profit per matter? Profit per lawyer? Profit per dollar spent on labor?
So when that fateful time comes, what will the hour be worth? Frankly, given the jeers from the client galleries, what’s an hour worth now?