Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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How the World Has Changed, but Not the Legal Profession

Do current law school grads celebrate completion of law school with a banquet anymore? When I graduated, our banquet organizing committee arranged for a prominent Justice to deliver a keynote speech as we embarked on our new careers. Unfortunately, a short time before the event, something intervened and the Justice was no longer available, and the committee had to find a new speaker on short notice. I don’t remember who the speaker was, but he was a senior lawyer, and he chose to speak to us about how law office technology had changed during his career. Most of us had no context for his remarks about how lawyers adapted to photocopiers, fax machines etc. because we didn’t know much about how offices of any sort functioned! I am sure that he also made pertinent and helpful comments about our future careers but most of us just remember the history of office machinery. I think about this story now that I’m an older lawyer who occasionally wants to ramble on about the introduction of word processors and desktop computers—but I won’t today, I promise.
I dredged up that story, from 1986, some thirty-eight years ago, because the world, and how lawyers function within the world, continues to change. Some changes come from social developments, but technology continues to be a catalyst, and we know that lawyers who fail to adapt may be left behind, perhaps facing extinction. The Law Society has included “demonstrating technological competency” as part of our Continuing Professional Development program (within the Practice Management domain), reinforcing that we are expected to be agile and respond to new and more efficient processes. I am coping with, and grateful to most enhanced office technology, but don’t get me started about AI.   
Another story that had me thinking about change over the course of my life has to do with a Christmas gift. A friend asked me if there was anything I wanted for Christmas. I had already given my Christmas wish list to my family and didn’t want to risk duplicating items, so I mentioned something I had missed putting on my list: Dolly Parton’s CD (yes, I still play CDS. I like owning my music!) called Rock Star.
This is a monumental change for me. When I was in high school, my friends and I were avid rock music fans. We liked a broad spectrum of rock music, from punk and new wave to soul and Motown to hard rock and soft rock with some folk rock thrown in. But it was all rock music and, because we were teenagers, we looked down on other forms of music, especially country music. We were city kids, and country music was what our grandparents listened to! Tommy Hunter had a TV show on CBC on Friday nights, playing his guitar and singing Friday nights, and this type of music sent my peer group running for the basement (this was the pre-Sony Walkman—we might have had to bring our transistor radios to drown out the sound of that awful music on offer from the CBC.)
This trend continued into law school, where our student band played rock music, and rock music was what we danced to when we went out clubbing (but I don’t think we called it that, then.) Was there country music in the 1980s? I wouldn’t know.
And don’t get me started on Dolly Parton. As a young feminist growing up in a female-headed single parent home, I wanted to be part of the movement that enshrined equal rights for women. We were intelligent and educated, and we wanted to be taken seriously. I didn’t “get” Dolly Parton, who dressed and looked like a Barbie doll (and I wondered if all her parts were authentic.) What kind of woman in the 1980s wore that much makeup, and the corset-like revealing costumes—no doubt, Dolly was part of the world we were out to change as we claimed our place as lawyers. If you had told me that I would be playing Dolly Parton songs in my lifetime, I would have asked if Hell had frozen over.
Now, to be fair, my Dolly Parton CD is Dolly singing rock music and she does a fabulous job, dueting with some of my female rock icons like Stevie Nicks, Ann Wilson, Blondie, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett (as well as Paul McCartney and Elton John!) I have learned more about Dolly Parton and am impressed with her philanthropy and positive contributions to the world. Her family was dirt poor, and she likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity for education that my friends and I had. She was exactly the type of woman that feminism was designed to help, but we judged her for not being like us.
And I have changed, too. I have learned not to judge people by their appearances and to be more open-minded about other types of music (except Billy Talent and Scrillex, which I had to ban from my car when my kids were teenagers. Trust me, there were days when a twang and a banjo would have been welcome!)
So many things have changed since the mid-1980s. When I went to law school, my class was about 30% female and I now hear of law schools where more than half the class are women! My law school class was not only predominantly male, but it was also almost entirely white, with just a handful of students of colour. And while of course I have LGBTQ2S+ classmates, no one was out in those days. Law has progressed from being a profession for young white men from “nice” families to a profession that more accurately reflects the diversity of our society. All is good.
A lot has changed, but we have one troubling source of stress for lawyers and families which has been untouched: high billable hour targets. The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Professionals, released in late 2022, identified that pressure to meet billable hour targets was a significant source of challenges in our profession, finding that the billable hour target model linked with increasing levels of distress and depression.

The Study noted as well that as billable hour targets increase, so does incivility, while commitment to practising law decreases.
Most of us in private practice would give their eyeteeth to have a target of 1200 hours—but in my experience, file qualities may play a role in making the pressure to reach a lower target more stressful than a higher one. If you have files that cannot support the time that you need to put in to do a credible job, then the existence of your billable hour target will be stressful, while someone with a higher target but with files that support proper preparation and delivery could have less stress.
I don’t know when 1800 hours became a popular target, but by the time I was applying for articling positions in early 1985, the larger firms all had targets of 1800 hours per year. My approach for finding an articling position involved sourcing options outside of these targets which my gut told me would be harmful to me. But I willingly opted in to an 1800 billable hour target soon after my bar call.
I don’t know whether setting a billable hour target equivalent to the number of hours “regular” jobs entail (1800 hours equates to 37.5 hours per week, 48 weeks per year) is rooted in aspirational thinking, hubris or insecure overachievement, but the 1800 billable hours target goes back to a period in time where many to most (male) lawyers had an assistant at work and a “helpmeet” at home who took care of all family and household responsibilities.  So, while futurists in the 1970s envisioned a four-day work week as computers—and perhaps robots(!)-- would become more accessible, lawyers bucked this trend and locked into long workweeks.
From what I have observed, the focus on high billable hour targets did not change as more lawyer households became two working parent households: some families had two parents each trying to bill 1800 hours while trying to handle children, medical appointments, parent-teacher interviews, meal preparation, laundry, ferrying kids to engagements and pets to vet appointments, elder care, and hosting dinner parties for colleagues and clients.
Have you ever seen excerpts from 1950s home economics handbooks used to educate girls and young women to care for their husbands and families? You can check out an excerpt here. While some things had changed by the 1980s (and now), check out how the ideal vision of what homemakers should do:

Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal, on time. 

This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. 

Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal is part of the warm welcome needed. 

One of my lawyer friends used to say that she needed a wife. Not because she was a lesbian looking for a long-term relationship but because she wanted what her male colleagues had, someone at home who magically took care of everything so that the lawyer came home to dinner on the table, a tidy home, and happy children (ok, this was the theory.) As more women entered the legal profession and new family dynamics emerged, we had more lawyers working long days at the office and at home evenings and weekends because there was no one whose job was running the household.

We all took on more at home, without any change to the dominant measure of lawyer worth, the billable hour.
I opted for a reduced hours arrangement as a lawyer in private practice with young children. I didn’t go into law for the money—I thought it would be interesting (and it was) and had no idea of the types of challenges that practicing law would bring. I thought reduced hours targets would catch on, but I was evidently an outlier.
I haven’t researched whether anyone else thinks that having two parents working in demanding jobs with high billable hour targets, without someone holding a family safety net for either of them, makes a significant contribution to lawyer stress and burnout, but it is going to be on my project list. We haven’t increased the number of hours in a week, and computers and robots haven’t magically eliminated the need for family and household responsibilities.
I have been thinking about this because I delivered lawyer well-being presentations to two law firms this week and I always struggle with how to present the National Study findings about billable hours. While I wish I could wave a magic wand and make billable hour pressure disappear, law firms still need a way to divide the pie among highly competitive professionals who value achievement of external benchmarks. But is it time for a re-think about how much we are willing to work in order to chase inclusion in the top percentiles of wealth in our society?
I am not, by nature, subversive, but I have to question why legal work is tied to behaviour which we know is unhealthy (long hours doing demanding work in a competitive environment with pressure to bill almost superhuman rates.) Maybe the villain isn’t billable hour targets but the idea that lawyers have to work 50 to 60 hours per week in order to reach their targets (of 1800 hours per year or a lesser target where files are less lucrative.) Legal pundits tell us that new generations of lawyers are not interested in the lack of work-life balance or integration that conventional law practice brings, so talking about how to make legal practice work going forward is due.
If I can evolve to playing Dolly Parton on my commute, can we experiment with more humane structure within our profession? We know that lawyers are willing to work hard—no one went to law school thinking it was going to be easy. But is the institutionalization of high billable hour targets (high relative to the work files and practice area can support) the best we can offer? Sigh—time for me to go listen to Dolly rock out (unless someone can resurrect Michael Jackson and he is out  there somewhere singing Jolene!)