An interesting article by Tim Harford in today’s FT:
Twenty years ago, M Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology, began an article with the observation that “Many lawyers are very unhappy, particularly lawyers who work in big firms. They may be rich, and getting even richer, but they are also miserable, or so they say.” Was this sad state of affairs caused by long hours or stressful work? Perhaps. But Kaveny identified a more specific culprit: the “billable hour” — or even more precisely, the billable six-minute increment.
By accounting for every moment of their working lives, and defining each moment as either “billable” or, regrettably, “non-billable”, lawyers were being tugged inexorably towards an unhappy, unhealthy attitude to the way they spent their time. Not all lawyers, of course. And not only lawyers, either.
Kaveny had several concerns. She noted that lawyers would focus on narrow short-term goals rather than broader or deeper values such as maintaining skills, mentoring young colleagues, or living up to the highest ideals of the law. She worried about the explicit commodification of time.
The whole framework of the billable hour makes it feel naggingly expensive to do anything non-billable
But perhaps more relevant today than ever is that the billable hour encourages us to view all time as fungible. If time is money, that’s as true for 6am on Christmas morning as it is for 2pm on Friday the 29th of April. “No time is inherently sacred or even special,” writes Kaveny.
If you bill £1,000 an hour, as some senior lawyers do, then any particular six-minute increment of time is available to be turned into £100. Can you really afford an hour in the gym? Can you really afford to call your mother or read a bedtime story to your child?
The point is not that lawyers never call their mothers. It’s that the whole framework of the billable hour makes it feel naggingly expensive to do anything non-billable. As Oliver Burkeman laments in his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks, the logical conclusion is that “an hour not sold is automatically an hour wasted”.
Now I am sure not many of us are billing £1000 an hour but many of us do have to record our work hours or at the very least are on an hourly salary.
One of the most insightful observations on the Celtic Tiger years was a fella who noticed the death of casual encounters. He said in the 80s you would meet someone on a street in Dublin, you would chat and very often you would decide to go for a pint. He observed during the Celtic Tiger years this habit died out as when you meet someone on the street they were always in a rush to be somewhere. Economists call this ‘opportunity cost’, to do one thing means you can’t do another.
One of the things that drives me mental about the modern world is the ‘busy’ culture. Everyone is ‘busy’. They are too busy to meet for lunch, they are too busy to take their kids to the park, they are too busy to walk anywhere and need to drive, they are too busy at work to take time off etc. Amazingly they still find 4 hours a day to arse around on their phones and social media but for everything else they are ‘mad busy’.
I help to manage Slugger by taking care of the site as well as running our live events. My background is in business, marketing and IT. My politics tend towards middle-of-the-road pragmatism, I am not a member of any political party. Oddly for a member of the Slugger team, I am not that interested in daily politics, preferring to write about big ideas in society. When not stuck in front of a screen, I am a parkrun Run Director.