Why is it used?
Billing by reference to 6 minute units is standard within the legal profession. For decades it has been used to measure:
- The profitability of a Practice as a whole (one or more lawyers), and
- The productivity and performance of individual lawyers within the Practice
From a financial perspective the measurement works reasonably well for both. Nevertheless, I argue here that the 6 minute unit impacts the health and wellbeing of the individuals under scrutiny, so significantly, that it requires attention from a risk management perspective.
It’s 5 years since I left law. I am sure the technology has advanced in that time but as I understand it, the 6 minute unit remains God.
In some parts of the profession, work is charged by reference to the brief, job, or project (terminology fluctuates, depending on the area of the world you live in, but you get the idea). The client pays a set price for a particular job, or piece of work.
All this might seem like a great idea from the client’s perspective but things are not as straight forward as they might appear.
What happens if you are a needy client? You know the type who likes to micro manage.
Alternatively, what if you are a vulnerable client, who genuinely needs a bit more hand holding?
Should the lawyer just suck it up ?
Paying for a set piece of work is a great idea until you start to think about individual needs. Let’s face it, people tend to consult lawyers because they have a problem they need sorting out. The real skill comes when you can match individual needs to a range of desirable outcomes.
Have you heard the one about the lawyer and …
I left law because I couldn’t find a way to sustain my health within it but I do want to defend the profession a little. Let’s take a look at the often heard “lawyers make pots of money” jokes.
I was on the edge of a conversation recently and listened, silently, to the usual rant about how outrageous lawyers and their fees are.
Of course, I kept well under the radar as this man, who I think is utterly adorable in all other respects, went on, and on, about “ I mean how much does a piece of paper cost? How much for a stamp?…….. I said well don’t send me any more letters! ” Chortles all round.
They were so busy rolling around on the floor, no-one noticed my eye rolling.
I thought “What do you think you are paying for…..the letter? Not the years of study and experience that go into being able to give you the content?”
Really, how do people think things are, or should be, priced? What’s a fair price?
For those interested, standard letters are charged as one six minute unit. Only non standard letters i.e. those actually containing advice, are charged at a higher rate.
Ok let’s assume I have convinced you that the 6 minute unit is a reasonable way to charge for legal services. Not ideal but really the best we can come up with for now.
What is it doing for the health and well being of the lawyers who work with it?
What is it doing for productivity and morale?
I can tell you, hand on heart, that working with the 6 minute unit, coupled with other inherent features of the profession, is like living under the Sword of Damocles.
Provided lawyers are not receiving a stack of complaints, or threats of legal action, in broad terms, the 6 minute unit is the ultimate productivity marker. The more 6 minute units you record the better. Seven hours of recorded time is ideal but there is always an x person who manages to record 10 hours a day and is discussed in revered tones. Unless you are x, this creates a culture of mild panic “ I should be doing more!”
Chargeable time is time you can legitimately charge for. It does not include time spent on any of the following:
i Meetings of any sort (unless it’s with, or for, a specific client)
ii Most research; you are assumed to know it all already and retain every bit of it
iii Helping and supporting others, whether that be colleagues or admin support
iv Doing photocopying because everyone else is too busy
v Comfort breaks
vi Dealing with phone calls from your child’s school, warning you that you will be reported to social services if you are late for after school care on one more occasion.
Consequently, a real skill develops. It’s a very special time warp skill; being able to do in 3 minutes that which should ordinarily take 6.
The Cumulative Effect
Let’s consider the 6 minute unit in combination with the innate nature of the job.
The adversarial nature of the job is what makes it exciting right? That’s why everyone tunes into LA law, or whatever the current courtroom drama is. What I have in mind is less courtroom drama, more, ever present low level anxiety and hyper vigilance.
The day starts with a full in box. It may as well open accompanied by a cracking firework because that’s the kind of jolt you receive first thing. I’d say, at least fifty per cent of the content is polite “ with the greatest respect you are an idiot.” content.
Once you have absorbed all the content it’s time to settle down a little……The task starts. You begin to compose your own “ No! YOU, are the idiot” responses.
These features are part of an external blame culture which in many ways is understandable and an unavoidable part of the adversarial process. That’s just how it works. The argument has to be won or lost?
Time For A Pat On The Back?
Have you ever been into a solicitors office and seen a few lame 4 or 5 thank you cards on top of a filing cabinet?
Have a good look next time. Are they going a little yellow around the edges? Let me help. They are probably there because they are received so infrequently. If you do a good job, that’s expected! No thanks required.
And I am not suggesting for a second that clients should be obliged to say thank you.That’s what they are paying for right?
So there is the adversarial nature of the job which is unavoidable but what about the pervading internal blame culture.
Days are routinely punctuated by narrations of tale, after tale, of disaster, coupled with assertions of blame. Bloody moron etc!
Don’t expect a group hug or a job well done. Generally speaking, the only time work is discussed is if someone decides you are doing a bad job or, you are at a performance review.
What it is actually doing to our health?
This is a working environment where low level anxiety and hyper vigilance (think reactions of a trap door spider) are ever present. It is unhealthy for everyone, but women are particularly badly affected.
Adrenal fatigue (low levels of cortisol) which eventually develops in response to constantly elevated cortisol (our natural response to stressful events), has a knock on effect in the rest of the endocrine system. It’s just pot luck and constitutional weakness which determines where more long term problems i.e. chronic disease, will arise.
There might be no harm intended but it’s harmful, make no mistake.
I suppose there is an argument for taking the “well that’s life and people burn out!” type of attitude. People are expendable, certainly, but what a waste. There is another point. Before these individuals eventually burn could the quality of their work be better?
People who feel crushed and undervalued are not performing at their optimum.
Time for a mindset shift!
Traditionally lawyers don’t do anything unless they feel at risk.
If I haven’t persuaded you that “the right thing” should be done, let me put it another way. People are being placed in a position of foreseeable risk of harm.
It’s not all doom and gloom and some very simple measures can be instituted which may alleviate the risk (at minimal cost)
Here are my suggestions:
- Buy cortisol testing kits. Educate and make them available to employed legal staff for free. Have an action plan in place for individuals who identify trends indicative of a problem.
- Build peer bonding and teamwork. Empower individuals to work through difficulties with peers in a blame free zone. Find a way to value this in the same way as chargeable time
- Invite lawyers to offer up a brag of the week and celebrate when things that have gone well
- Reward individuals for the positive contributions they make beyond the obvious money making ones
- Teach employees how to effectively manage their stress levels, for example, by teaching some basic meditation techniques (see 2. – value and chargeable time).
Above all recognise that this culture should carry with it a massive health warning. The macho “are you tough enough” approach is completely outdated. Look at other ‘youth inspired’ technologies and the working cultures, patterns and ideas they put in place.
The benefits are tangible; individuals who are less stressed and work in their flow are necessarily more productive.
For those of you who feel powerless, distribute this and anything else in a similar vein. Put those in positions of power on notice.
Speak up and if nothing is done ……well then it’s time to brush up the litigation skills!!!
Ah well …you can take the girl out of law….!