Everyone hates the lawyer’s billable unit of time, except the solicitors’ unions, the managers of law firms and their equity partners. When it was introduced over a century ago, time-based billing was seen as a magnificent improvement on solicitors charging by weight of paper. A fee determined by the heaviness of documentation was an incentive to generate more paper.

In a move to modernise, the clock replaced the scales and the spinning of time replaced the padding of files. We have heard of cases where clients have been billed for more hours than constitute a day. Creativeness knows no limits, whether scales or clocks measure it.

Quite apart from clients, judges have been complaining about this for some time, but then they have forsaken the world of time-determined fees for the fixed salary.

NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman questioned the tyranny of the billable hour in his speech opening the law term in February 2004. He said that costs are frequently out of proportion to the matter in dispute, and that it is difficult to justify a system in which inefficiency is rewarded with higher remuneration.

Attorney General Bob Debus asked the Legal Services Advisory Council to look into it. This is a very quiet little outfit composed of representatives of the profession and lay people. It produced a discussion paper on fees last year. It is not on its web site and the executive officer is not available.

The discussion paper was sent to a new panel composed entirely of lawyers, all intimately involved in the management of the profession. The panel has produced a report that has been sitting around the Attorney General’s office for six weeks and is said to be going to cabinet this month. The report does not so much challenge the innate rapaciousness of time-based billing; it seeks to have more disclosure, and more specifics of the actual dollar amount a matter should cost a client.

The calculation of these more precise values will, of course, take time, and money.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW