Donna Purcell, K.C., “Lady Justice: Ideas in Action – Discussing Billable Hours”, Red Deer Advocate (22 July 2022) 13.
As a parent, worker and community volunteer, the main limitation one runs up against is time. On average, we Canadians have approximately 4,200 weeks of time in our lives. I gave notice to leave my law firm in Edmonton to move to Red Deer in 1995, to join my husband and a Red Deer law firm, and I received a big departing cheque because it seems I never thought to take holidays. So, let’s add those to the list of roles – holiday taker. Once our daughters were born, that became something I never forgot to take as then I could focus on my favourite role – parent (and traveller).
Many years ago, lawyers charged by the word. You will see some historic documents still around as precedents that list about 10 synonyms in a sentence (eg. “I hereby fully release and forever discharge…”). A client must have caught on and complained, or a lawyer’s thesaurus perhaps was misplaced, as that practice changed to charging by the billable hour. Many lawyers still charge by the billable hour. That hour is usually broken down into tenths of an hour (i.e. 6 minutes). That recorded time produces the data multiplied by an hourly rate to determine the fee charged to the client. Time is money in that context.
Where is the incentive to become more efficient? If the lawyer takes more time, it costs the client more money. The free market and a client’s limited means do require efficiencies. Unfortunately, access to legal representation in the legal system in many areas remains beyond the scope of most Canadians due to cost. Lawyers can enter alternative billing arrangements such as flat fees or contingency fees (usually a percentage of the recovery made for the client). Our firm is also exploring more bundled services, including to assist clients with their digital adoption plans.
Even when I work on contingency basis or for a flat fee, I have recorded my time so I will have the data to account to myself as to where my day went. When my children were born, I found that I would get those hours in much more efficiently as I set a target to make decisions, take action and get home. Before, I might allow for more distractions and work really long days. Now, at my new firm we are recording time for the non-lawyer staff, with a view to all working on our efficiencies (including automation). We want to see if we can convert a five day work week into a four day work week accomplishing the same amount of work more efficiently through process improvement and focus. Our goal is to create more time for us and our families and community and less cost for the client.
Remote court options can also serve to reduce legal fees. This is one factor that makes me a legal tech evangelist. Technology is just a tool but a very effective one if used creatively to solve problems. Attending by videoconference means that travel time is reduced. There are no parking fees. Instead of waiting in a full gallery, the lawyer can work on other matters in the comfort of their office until their case is being heard. Limited time can be used much more wisely.
A justice system focused on a “client first” approach can reduce fees and increase the ability for lawyers to be more efficient to serve more clients (and perhaps spend less hours at the office or work from their home office as needed). Certainly, many cases may need to be in person, at least in part, for various reasons. However, the Pandemic allowed the Courts to pivot and it would be a huge disappointment if that progress is lost.
Back to holidays. Wednesday morning was a perfect day for a firm holiday and my younger daughter and I walked in the Westerner Days parade. After two years of cancellation due to COVID-19, we saw so many bright young faces seeing a parade for the first time. The Pandemic “stole” some time – the corn dogs are back so take time to celebrate. Time to break attendance records and support our community by enjoying Westerner Days.
Donna Purcell, Q.C., (aka Lady Justice) is a Central Alberta lawyer and Chief Innovation Officer with Donna Purcell QC Law. If you have legal questions contact firstname.lastname@example.org.