Guest Post: “The Billable Hour will Die in 5 years” and other Pathetic Pieces of Professor Prophecy

Boozy’s Note: Today I welcome back our prior contributor, Bill  M. Hours, the insurance defense attorney who’s come in from the cold to talk about the asinine predictions his law professors and classmates made regarding the practice of law in the future. 

I like Bill. Bill has the requisite amount of snark. I’ll just shut up and let him show it off for you.

Enjoy!

Recently I attended an event at one of my alma maters where I was able to chat with a handful of people who are either considering law school, or who are in the first few years of their experience. Being the only practicing attorney at the table, they naturally wanted to run some questions by me, which I was more than happy to talk about. After several minutes of back and forth one young person, with an obviously beleaguered look on his face, asked “so, do you have anything good to say about law school?”

I think I spend too much time on LawyerSlack.

That interaction got me thinking about my experience a little more in depth than I had recently, and about some of the things that I was told as a fresh-faced 1L entering the legal world for the first time. Many of you reading this may be considering law school, or may be deep in the throes of studying for an upcoming Torts exam. Still others are working on end-of-the-year case work to prepare for a new round of litigation in the New Year. Regardless of where you are on your legal journey, there’s likely an authority figure that is going to share, uninvited, his or her perspective on the future of the legal market and the world at large.

Any lawyer worth his or her weight in deposition transcripts can tell you that making decisions based on future ‘certainties’ is a bad idea. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read enough writing by lawyers to know that we tend to hedge any future statements and avoid absolutes like the plague. There’s a good reason for that. If I tell you “X definitely won’t happen” and then X happens, you’re going to be pissed at me, and for good reason. You’re paying me for my judgment, and if my judgment is consistently wrong, you’ll be wondering why you’re paying me. So the best thing I can do, for both of us, is hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

You should be aware that the people who will be grading your finals or sitting as the judge on your cases can be just as dumb as you sometimes. This isn’t meant to demean anyone who may have held, or who continues to hold, these positions, but here’s some dumb statements said to me by stupid people who are idiots and should just stop.

Facebook will be dead in 3-5 years (Circa 2012)

At the risk of sounding young and naïve to you, my friends and I once had an idea for a mobile game which I brought to a professor of mine to discuss in terms of the kinds of concerns we should have going into it and the sort of things we should do to prepare for its ‘inevitable’ success. This professor, while only about a decade older than I was, had graduated from a much higher ranked school than the one I was attending, and made a point to bring it up as much as possible. While I had not expected this professor with a business background to tell me I had struck electronic gold, I also didn’t expect the reaction I got to the mere mention of allowing my potential audience to connect to the game with a Facebook account.

He urged me to not even consider it, “Facebook is dying” he said confidently. “It will go the way of MySpace in 3-5 years.” His confidence in his ability to see the future was uncanny. For a brief moment I allowed myself to consider that what he said might be true. That was when I realized that I had just heard one of the stupidest things I had ever, or would ever, hear. Seven years from now, when we’re re-electing President Zuckerberg, I may just call up that professor and ask him to pull the other one.

The job market for lawyers will be back to pre-recession levels at/by 2016 (Circa 2013)

This particular idiotic musing strikes me as being the most insidious of the bunch, and chances are you may have heard a similar prediction with the dates switched out. I would disregard it as mere hopefulness, but the unthinking expression of the people who said it makes me think that it must’ve been a talking point that had been regurgitated so many times as to become meaningless to the speaker. It seems to be that this phrase must have been a selling point that law schools were using to try to get people through the door. I may have heard it from an admissions person, but if I did, I don’t recall.

This self-evidently incorrect point was raised to me shortly after I matriculated, and it was repeated by my classmates with almost religious fervor each time we heard of the lack of success our predecessors had in securing jobs after graduation.

“Did you hear? Jamie is still looking for a job, and she graduated in the top 10%!”

“Well, you know what they say; the market should be back to pre-crash levels soon.”

For a short while, I allowed myself to be fooled by this prophecy as well, at least it allowed me to focus my stress on the more immediate exams that awaited me. I heard the phrase repeated so many times, I’m not even certain that I could tell you the name of the professor who said it to me first (not that I would out that person online for their indiscretion). I’m sure that many people are responsible for the proliferation of this lie, and they will have to bear the culpability for millions of dollars in crippling student loan debt that is the evidence of their folly.

The billable hour will be dead in 5 years (Circa 2013)

This is a fun one because the person I heard this from said it to a room with a “mixed crowd,” meaning that lawyers were there. The immediate and uproarious laughter should have clued this person into the fact that their academic laurels were not going to be enough to convince a room littered with practicing attorneys that the billable hour was going anywhere. However, this person doubled down, insisting that flat fee arrangements, and other such trendy fee agreements, would become the standard by the time that many of the students in the room were actively practicing.

Now, the legal profession isn’t exactly known for being quick to adopt new ideas. The Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the country, just recently decided that this whole “internet” thing wasn’t a just fad, and magnanimously changed their rules to allow electronic filing instead of making people use the post office to file their briefs like cavemen. The industry as a whole is one of the most conservative out there (not necessarily in the political sense), and so new ideas have to go through the ringer before they will ever be adopted widely.

Don’t get me wrong, the billable hour should die. If my firm tells client X that my billable rate is $125 an hour, and then the client turns around and gives my firm a list of things they will and won’t pay for, and time restriction on certain things, they are effectively setting a fee ceiling. This fee ceiling could very quickly and easily become a de facto flat fee arrangement. So it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to people who think that the billable hour should/will die, it’s just that I’m not very confident that clients or lawyers will let it happen.

The death knell for the billable hour that I heard in law school also is one of the few pieces of forecasting by a professor that hasn’t hit its expiration yet. To be fair, I suppose it is technically possible that the way of doing business in the law could be completely uprooted and replaced with millennial-appeasing buzzwords by the end of 2018, but my opinion, if you’re paying for it, is that definitely won’t happen.

Probably

-Bill M. Hours

Bill is an insurance defense drone and loves every minute of it, having lost his soul way back in the early weeks of law school.

Author: BoozyBarrister

From a riverboat to a law office, the BoozyBarrister is a civil litigator with a bad attitude.