Dear Mr. Schaeffer:
This is a question about billable hours. Recently, I switched law firms. At the old firm, we billed in 6-minute increments, meaning that if I worked for 8 minutes on a case, I was supposed to round up to 12 minutes. Since each 6-minute increment was worth .1 hour, I would write “.2” on my timesheet. At my new firm, we bill in 15-minute increments. This means that if I work for 8 minutes on a case, I round up to 15 minutes and write “.25” on my timesheet, which is the minimum billing increment for any entry.
Recently, I learned a neat trick. Once I work for 7 ½ minutes on a case, I can stop what I’m doing and spend the next 7 ½ minutes reading weblogs. Due to the rounding effect and the minimum billing increment, I still get to bill 15 minutes to the case. By working all day like this, I can work for half the day and read weblogs for half the day and still bill as many hours as I was billing at the old firm. Do you think this practice is ethical?
Signed, Feeling Ill at Ease in Illinois
Dear Feeling Ill at Ease:
Ethical? Probably not. But more importantly, you’re spending way too much time reading weblogs. If you’re going to cheat your clients by taking half-day reading breaks, you should at least be reading the Great Books. I suggest you start with Plato and move on to Aristotle. By the time you’ve made it through Nicomachean Ethics, you might be able to answer your time-keeping questions without having to seek help from a weblog author.
What will you learn when you read Aristotle? The first thing you’ll learn is that the goal of ethics is to determine the most efficient means of achieving happiness. But what is happiness? According to Aristotle, it’s making your life consistent with certain important virtues. Which virtues? Oh, c’mon. Enough with the questions. Let’s be honest: Aristotle is a bore. Let’s talk about you—the lawyer who's cheating his clients. Now that’s a topic. After all, in cheating your clients, you’re also cheating yourself. Doesn’t getting ahead at your law firm depend on billing more hours than everyone else? Rather than reading for 7 ½ minutes out of every 15, I suggest that you pick up an entirely separate file. Work on it for 7 ½ minutes, which will allow you to bill for another .25 hours. If you keep this up all day, you can bill 16 hours in every 8 hours. If you cut the time you spend on each file down to 5 minutes, you can bill an astounding 24 hours in every 8 hours. Amazing, isn’t it?
While I’m not able to condone this sort of activity, you have to be pretty good at math to figure out what you’re doing wrong. You’ll be happy to hear that most ethicists are poor mathematicians. It means that once you’re brought up on ethics charges, all you need to do to defend yourself is to ramble on and on about the math. If your rambling is anything like this post, your interrogators will become so confused that they’ll let you off out of sheer frustration. Good luck, and if you decide to ignore my advice and read weblogs anyway, be sure to keep reading this one.
Your friend, Evan Schaeffer
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