Lawyers And Time

In December 2001, a fascinating (at least to me anyway) article appeared in the New York Times discussing a just-published law review article by Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny, then of the University of Notre Dame School of Law (and, before that, a colleague of mine at Ropes & Gray in Boston).  Cathleen held a dual appointment at the law school and Notre Dame’s divinity school, and the subject of her article was how the “billable hour mentality” distorts a lawyer’s sense of time and how that distorted sense of time shapes a lawyer’s life:

”What view of the nature and purpose of time is embedded in the worldview of billable hours?” Professor Kaveny asks. ”More importantly, what view of the shape of a lawyer’s life, of a human life, is fostered by that worldview?”

In her opinion, the ”regime of billable hours” treats time ”as instrumentally valuable, rather than intrinsically valuable.” What counts are the extrinsic goals of winning advantages for the client and profits for the firm. Intrinsic satisfactions like doing good work, nurturing younger associates or contributing to the community cannot be translated into billable hours.

The habit of treating time as a commodity with a price tag can seep into other aspects of lawyers’ lives, Professor Kaveny says, so that nonwork activities and even personal relationships are viewed in financial terms. Time spent with family or friends is calculated in terms of ”trade-offs” and lost opportunities.

Nearly 13 years later, Cathleen’s article still resonates with me.  Every lawyer who lives in a billable hour environment should take a moment to read at least the New York Times summary of her article. 

Why am I thinking about this issue now?  Because I came across this wonderful, short documentary about time and where it comes from.  Take a few minutes to learn where a “minute” comes from, or whether it is truly possible to know what time really means.

Where Time Comes From from The Atlantic on Vimeo.

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan

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