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My good friend and blogging colleague Jordan Furlong suggested an intriguing idea while we were attending the ILTA Conference. We had started down a path on the sometimes taboo topic of timekeeping and the billable hour. Jordan takes the position that it should be abolished, freeing lawyers from the yoke of billable hours. Our debate ended with Jordan’s suggestion of a set of point-counterpoint blog posts. Originally I was thinking more along the lines of a Dan Aykroyd / Jane Curtin approach (with me getting the Dan Aykroyd line), but Jordan’s wisdom prevailed, so we are going with a Star Trek meme, celebrating its 456th Anniversary.

For Jordan’s off-based, rambling dialog (a.k.a. his point of view), check out his post here. What follows is my more prescribed, thoughtful and logical approach to the subject.

As we all know, a tear in the fabric of the space-time-continuum, such as the one Jordan suggests, brings many dangers. What we know and trust can lose cohesion. And we know the most appropriate response to addressing such a challenge: Logic – brought to us by our old friend, Mister Spock.

Mister Spock:

Although the suspension of the laws of timekeeping may have a certain appeal to the more emotional among us, logic will help us find our way back to solid ground. We all know the challenges and pitfalls of timekeeping in the legal market. However, just because something is hard, does not mean it should not be mastered.

To illustrate this, let’s step in to Jordan’s space-time breach and contemplate the world we see. Lacking timekeeping, the only apparent meter of value becomes value itself. Side-stepping the circular logic reference, we end up asking the client to share their perception of value for a given piece of work by providing the price they will pay for a service. Once they have chosen the price, do we commence with work?

Logic would dictate we will want some idea of whether we can obtain a reasonable level of profit on the work since the continued existence of our business and as an extension, our paycheck, is subject to this metric. A simple question must be asked: Are the cost of inputs greater than the price obtained? Which of course leads us to the question: Inputs?

Knowledge workers bring two types of input to bear when they provide a service: their knowledge and their time, a finite resource. So in answer to our question, we will want to know the amount of time required for each level of knowledge worker. We will stress here that we are not referencing their billing rates, but instead their cost rates. This would be our cost per hour per knowledge worker, which of course will be higher for those with more advanced and valuable levels of knowledge.

Moving back to our question, we cannot know the cost of inputs without knowing the cost of time. So we cannot know whether a piece of work will be profitable until we mend the tear in the space-time-continuum and recapture the ability to keep time.

Does this necessarily mean that time, or effort in this argument, equals value? No it does not. Only that time and effort are factors of cost. But to explore this disconnect between time and value, we should consider another possible scenario.

We return back in to our tear where our client values a service at 10,000 Darseks (he’s Klingon – btw).  We accept his offer and immediately hand him the necessary stack of completed legal documents. At this, he pulls his bat’leth and demands the return of his 10,000 Darseks. Why would he do such a thing? He has clearly valued the service at 10,000. Once we get him to agree not to behead us, he asks why he should pay 10,000 Darseks for something so easily provided. His point, although described in more base terms by him: Time and effort have a role in determining value.

It is obvious that the suspension of the laws of timekeeping would have disastrous consequences for the legal market. To be clear, our logic is not dictating that effort equals value, only that it can play a role in determining value. Logic does dictate that time and effort drives the cost of knowledge workers. So in the end, however a client values a piece of legal work, the time and effort required to deliver that service will play a role in determining the profitability of the work.

Now … a dialog on how the amount of time and effort can be reduced might be suggested as the next logical conversation in pursuing a profitable practice. For that, we should turn to Dan Aykroyd.