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Sept. 2 Post

Technology, the Billable Hour, and Ethical Considerations Intertwining for Future Lawyers.

An enormous push is happening for technological advances in the legal field.  These advances can accelerate the use of one’s time, potentially provide clients with better and quicker information (e.g. view documentation instantly instead of coming down to an office), and help obtain what was otherwise thought of as unobtainable information (e.g. an individual’s location at any given time). On the face of this push, positive results for the client sound effective and efficient so what is the draw back for some firms to delay or even completely avoid the use of technological advances?

One drawback for some firms, especially bigger firms is the “billable hour”.  The billable hour is a common billing routine for attorneys, which allows for lawyers to bill their clients by the hour (usually rounding in tenths) and in turn produce revenue to cover their salary and in some cases other firm expenses. On average, firms target between 1,700 and 2,300 billable hours a year.  (For a breakdown of how hours can add up in comparison to how often you are actually “at work” in a day see the Yale Law School article – link listed below). The high amount of billable hours that are required by employers usually cause lawyers to work long days and even into the night.  The lifestyle is one lawyers have adapted to; however, the new technological advances are leading to qualms that force individuals under the billable hour to commit even more time to their careers and offices. The amount of hours a lawyer can bill drastically decreases when converting and using technological advances (presumably because the technology saves the lawyer time in comparison to their old methods) causing the lawyer to have to produce the same work but unable to make the same amount of money.

As the basis for this complaint, firms and their attorneys work on often times complex legal issues and thus set these high billable rates for their hours.  However, contrary to these emotions coming forth on behalf of billable hour firms; I set forth the argument that technology is an ever growing field that applies to a plethora of careers.  Not just lawyers.  Further, if everyone can adjust and is adjusting, why can’t those in the legal profession? Are our services so delicate and specialized that we as a profession should have the opportunity to deny clients the use of technology when it could help save them money?

My first inclination, is that technology is a tool that can be utilized to help individuals when they let it. Giving lawyers the opportunity to opt out of a tool just so they can continue to increase their revenue is an unsettling feeling for me, and presumably it would be to the general public.  While I recognize that firms using the billable hour are also often firms that have “big time” clients who are usually able to take a bigger bill due to their lawyer’s performance, I am not entirely convinced that it is an ethical decision on behalf of the lawyer to delay the use of technological advances.

The ethical issues that may be at risk by withholding the use of technology could be a violation of a duty of candor and having reasonable attorney’s fees (also seen in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 11). Additionally, there are other ethical requirements with retaining confidential information that could come into play with the technological advances.  Thus, although the billable hour is a precious money-making tool, I write this post to caution future use – or lack thereof – of technology as it could cause other serious ethical complications for lawyers. (For other full explanations of ethical considerations and using technology see link below).

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-Donielle Robinson