Support for Lawyers

The Scourge of the Billable Hour

billable hours

“Go use our meditation room but make sure you bill 2,000 hours or you won’t get your bonus”

(p. 407, Reich, 2020)

This type of lip-service illustrates that the legal profession may not take wellbeing as seriously as needed. It highlights that stress, overwork and work pressure are common experiences among legal professionals. It also alludes to a link between these experiences, the billable hour and wellbeing. Further, it spotlights that only leaving wellbeing to the individual to deal with is an ineffective approach to a profession-wide, cultural and organisational issue.

The billable hour business model is ubiquitous in the legal profession. This model has been consistently raised as an organisational issue that impacts lawyers’ wellbeing and contributes to the culture of overwork. Thus, it is helpful to understand what the research has revealed about the impact of the billable hour on the professions’ wellbeing.

Could the billable hour be the scourge of the legal profession?

A paper on the billable hour by Yale Law School calculates the components of the billable hour. It states that lawyers need to bill as much as they possibly can because they need to generate enough revenue to cover their salary, overheads and profits for the firm. Their calculations indicate that to bill 1762 hours annually a lawyer needs to work 2350 hours (50 hours per week). To reach 2200 billable hours the lawyer would work 3058 hours annually (65 hours per week).

Cadieux et al. suggest the billable hour is a central organisational factor that diminishes lawyer wellbeing. This research shows that 67.9% of actual hours worked were billable hours, which is similar to the proportion of billable hours (at the higher level) suggested by Yale Law School. The Canadian report found that lawyers with billable targets worked 54 hours per week on average and those without such targets worked fewer hours (approximately 48 hours per week). It further reveals that 78.4% of legal professionals with a billable target less than 1200 hours annually experienced pressure to meet the target. This increased to 85.8% if the billing target was over 1800 hours. This experience of pressure indicates a context in which stress, overwork and illbeing prevail.

The research by Cadieux et al. outlines the main wellbeing consequences of the billable hour model. Legal professionals with billable targets lengthened work hours to meet targets, which put strain on their work-life balance. Further, the pressure to achieve billing targets increased lawyers’ psychological distress, depressive symptoms and burnout. Legal professionals with billable targets over 1800 hours per annum had poorer mental health and wellbeing. For lawyers practicing in areas of high emotional demand, such as family, immigration and criminal law, billable targets significantly increased depressive symptoms. This research paints the billable hour in poor light, confirming its strong links to diminished mental health and wellbeing.

Further, this research indicates that lawyers do not learn to manage the impacts of billing pressure over time and with experience. In fact, more experienced lawyers had higher levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms and burnout due to billing pressures. So, it appears the billable hour business model undermines lawyers’ wellbeing from young to experienced practitioners, with the latter apparently experiencing more profound impacts.

The literature on lawyer wellbeing consistently raises the issue of uncivil behaviour as both a contributor to and consequence of ill-being in the profession. Cadieux et al.’s research suggests that as billable targets rose so did experiences of incivility. Thus, the billable hour model may contribute to uncivil, bullying and discriminatory behaviour between legal professionals.

To add to this bleak picture, the research indicates that the billable hour model may be associated with staff retention issues. Cadieux et al.’s study shows that as billable hours increased so did legal professionals’ intentions to leave the profession as emotional commitment to the profession decreased. Thus, the consequences of the billable hour business model appear to be wide ranging and substantial, impacting lawyers across the span of their working life and having ramifications for individuals, leaders and organisations.

In light of the research we consider that the effects of the billable hour business model may contribute to unsafe work environments. The Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Cth), which have been adopted by most states in Australia, define a psychosocial hazard in regulation 55A as arising from the workplace environment and management. The billable hour model is a common work management strategy and system in legal organisations. Worksafe Australia suggests that working excessive hours, and without sufficient breaks, constitutes job demands that may be psychosocial hazards. Thus, it behoves legal workplaces to examine their work systems and practices concerned with billing and workflow to create safer work environments for their staff.

It seems the billable hour is indeed the scourge of the profession!

The research on the legal professions’ mental health and wellbeing has consistently called for systemic action to address the profession’s wellbeing issues. The majority of the International Bar Association’s Mental Wellbeing Principles focus on cultural and systemic, rather than individual, approaches to dealing with wellbeing. Could removal of the billable hour be a key systemic change the legal profession can adopt to improve its members’ wellbeing?

We’d like to know your thoughts.

If you use an alternative billing and work management strategy, we’d be interested to discover more about your experience.

If you use a billable hour model, we’d like to hear your perspective on the research, pros and cons.

Support for Lawyers understands legal professionals. Our professionals can assist legal leaders and your legal organisations to provide consistent wellbeing support to maintain your own and your staff’s mental health and wellbeing for the long term.

At Support for Lawyers, we believe that when whole firms or organisations engage with us wellbeing is embraced as part of normal workplace culture and business as usual. This is responsible business practice and is protective of everyone.

Talk to us about how our preventative approach to enhance wellbeing can support you, your staff and your legal organisation.


Brady, M. (2019). VLSB+C lawyer wellbeing project: Report on legal professionals’ reflections on wellbeing in the legal profession and suggestions for future reforms. Victorian Legal Services Board + Commission.

Cadieux, N., Cadieux, J., Gingues, M., Gouin, M.-M., Fournier, P.-L., Caya, O., Pomerleau, M.-L. Morin, E., Camille, A.B., & Gahunzire, J. (2022). Research report (final version): Towards a healthy and sustainable practice of law in Canada. National study on the health and wellness determinants of legal professionals in Canada, phase I (2020-2022). Université de Sherbrooke, Business School.

International Bar Association. (2021). Mental wellbeing in the legal profession: A global study. International Bar Association.

Kelk, M., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S., & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers. Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Reich, J.F. (2020). Capitalizing on healthy lawyers: The business case for law firms to promote and prioritize lawyer well-being. Villanova Law Review, 65(2), 361-418.

Robson, A. (2023). Australians need to work smarter – not longer or harder. Australian Productivity Commission.

Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Cth).

Worksafe Australia. (2024). Job demands. Commonwealth of Australia.

Yale Law School Career Development Office. (2017). The truth about the billable hour. Yale Law School.

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