Bloomberg Law
Nov. 4, 2021, 9:31 AM

Can Law Firms Measure Ambition Without Billable Hours?

Roy Strom
Roy Strom

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. This week, we look for new ways Big Law could satisfy lawyers’ ambition. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox most Thursday mornings. Programming Note: The Big Law Business column will be off next week for Veteran’s Day.

Lawyers pretty much have to have an above-average ambition. It helps them get a good score on the LSAT, succeed in law school and land a great job. Ultimately it leads them to the big prize: They join a Big Law firm!

But after that, how do lawyers express their ambition? They probably work a lot.

Recently, people seem to agree Big Law associates are working too much. The combination of overwork, perfectionism and, lately, isolation, creates serious mental health risks—and it’s bad business.

The New York State Bar Association this week released some suggestions to address this problem. One of them is to place a cap on the amount of hours lawyers work at 1,800.

I don’t think any firm is about to take them up on this. For one thing, the industry is currently doling out special rewards to the select lawyers who worked the very hardest this year. Firms are too scared to impose a cap because it would be hard to hire the number of additional lawyers the cap would require. It would also put a huge dent in profits.

The harder part, though, has to do with ambition: How young people measure it, and how Big Law firms promote and reward it. High achievers want to prove something—often to themselves. Put them into a big group and push them toward a goal, and a competition will ensure to accomplish it.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s the concept underlying team sports. “You play to win the game,” as the former Jets head coach Herm Edwards famously said. “You don’t play to just play it.”

The counterpoint highlighted by the pandemic and ensuing deluge of work is: Anything not done in moderation can become unhealthy. An 1,800-hour limit on billable hours at least introduces the concept of moderation.

And that’s a fair proposal. When the goal is 2,000 hours a year, and some people are reportedly billing 2,800, it’s pretty clear the current Big Law system takes advantage of young lawyers’ ambition.

“Unfortunately for lawyers, the actions for which they reap the highest rewards over the course of their careers can frequently cross the line into unhealthy behaviors,” The New York State Bar report says.

The billable hour serves as something of a measuring cup ambitious people pour themselves into. The unfortunate truth about Big Law is that it doesn’t have many alternative definitions of success.

In a fictional world where hours are evenly distributed, law firms would be stuck with a thorny question they should find a real-world answer for: If we stop rewarding people for the quantity of their work, what do we replace it with?

I don’t necessarily know what it would be. But associates probably do. Why not ask them, “What makes you feel successful?” Then try to design the game they want to win. Odds are they’ll do a good job.

A Big Law managing partner recently told me if an associate made it to his firm, they’ve already been successful. The challenge for law firms is to treat them that way.

Worth Your Time

On Big Law Bonuses: Meanwhile, bonus season is ramping up again and Ruiqi Chen writes that Big Law is on the verge of another round of massive bonuses. Lawyers aren’t working in moderation, so why would they be paid in moderation?

“One thing firms have started to realize is that there’s no bottom,” Stephanie Ruiter, a director at legal recruiter Lateral Link, told Ruiqi. “There’s always going to be a firm willing to pay more.”

On Big Law Moms: Nearly forty major law firms and legal departments are ramping up an effort by The Diversity Lab to get moms who took a break from their career back into the practice of law. The group aims to help 200 moms return to the profession by 2025, Ruiqi reports.

On Basketball: Brian Baxter profiled Kevin Chung, a Bay Area lawyer and basketball junkie who this year began an interesting side gig: The official scorer of the Golden State Warriors.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at;
John Hughes in Washington at