Billable Hours versus Results: Which Has a Bigger Impact?

By Tracy LaLonde

May 1, 2024

Billable Hours versus Results: Which Has a Bigger Impact?

Tracy LaLonde helps managing partners and law firm leaders generate better engagement through effective people management. With over 30 years of experience in training, consulting, and professional development, Tracy is on a mission to change how law firms engage with their teams. She may be reached at [email protected].

Billable Hours versus Results: Which Has a Bigger Impact?

In the legal world, we’ve long held onto the billable hour like a security blanket. It’s how many law firms measure success and how some attorneys prove their worth. But it’s high time we ask ourselves: Is clocking more billable hours synonymous with creating more value for our clients or retaining key attorneys? 

The Billable Hour Paradigm

Since the dawn of the modern law firm, the billable hour has been the bread and butter of how firms make their money. It’s simple: lawyers track their time, clients get billed for it, and firms predict their revenue. There’s a certain comfort in this straightforward system where more time seemingly equals more value. It’s tempting to believe that if an attorney spends ten hours on a task instead of five, the client gets twice the value. But is that always the case?

While we can’t entirely disconnect from the reality that law firms will keep earning their keep through billable time, we also need to recognize that the longevity of our relationships with clients and attorneys hinges on recognizing and prioritizing the value created. In other words, clocking hours is just one portion of the bigger picture. The true art lies in striking that delicate balance between earning revenue and fostering relationships through tangible outcomes and high-perceived value.

The Impact of a Billable Hour Focus

Zeroing in exclusively on billable hours can inadvertently set the stage for burnout and discontent. Overworked lawyers can lead to a rapidly revolving door for talent and can create a disconnect with clients who may start to feel like just another hour on the timesheet. Ultimately, if we play the long game, it’s not just about the hours we bill but also about the trust and credibility we build along the way.

Switching to a results-oriented mindset doesn’t mean abandoning the billable hour; it means complementing it. It’s about celebrating those wins that come from razor-sharp strategy and top-notch expertise. This is where your clients’ eyes will light up—they’re not just paying for time; they’re investing in results. And when they see those wins, they’re more likely to see you as irreplaceable problem-solvers, not just timekeepers.

Value Creation as a Key Metric

Value is the new gold standard. It’s understanding what clients truly value and benchmarking our performance against their success. While staying afloat financially will always involve billing for our time, retaining clients—and the talented attorneys who serve them—entails firing on all cylinders to deliver top-tier, value-packed service. And there’s evidence aplenty showing that firms embracing this duality are building sturdier bridges with clients and crafting a more contented workforce.

Budging from the billable hour mindset can seem like steering a cruise ship with a canoe paddle, but it’s not only possible—it’s essential. It calls for recalibrating firm culture, revamping how we track and reward work, and having honest conversations with clients about the true nature of value. This evolution can make the difference between a firm that merely survives and one that thrives.


It’s time to ask the hard questions. In the dynamic legal landscape, do we want to be the firms stubbornly counting minutes and seconds? Or do we want to be the forward-thinkers measuring our impact by the success we achieve for those we represent?

Billing time won’t be dethroned anytime soon, and it shouldn’t be—it’s part of the legal fabric. But weaving in a focus on value creation will give firms the edge. It’s what makes clients stick around and makes lawyers feel proud of the work they do. Operating at this intersection of time and value is where the modern law firm becomes more than a legal service provider; it becomes a strategic partner to its clients and an employer of choice for its lawyers.

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