top of page

R.I.P The Billable Hour

We are gathered here today to bid farewell to the Billable Hour and commit her to the Hands of God.

The Billable Hour stood the test of time. She was resilient and adamant not to give up until the very end and had resolute support from her allies in the legal fraternity. She carried the customary fee arrangements that she inherited from generations before her with the grace and tenacity of a noble.

She suffered great criticism over the years from the public but was revered by attorneys and advocates alike. With the rise of machine learning and auto-document generation the arguments slowly turned more hostile. Why should the public pay per hour for a human being to do something that a computer can do, should do, could do – more accurately, in an eightieth of the time.

Two camps developed: for and against the Billable Hour. Those FOR the Billable Hour were unyielding in their support for her.

They felt uncomfortable without her, how would they charge? How would they make their targets every month? How would they survive? How could we trust a machine to be completely accurate without double checking and how would they charge for the soft touch of the law that only a human being could provide?

Those AGAINST the Billable Hour were concerned that they could only work a certain number of hours a day and so only earn a certain amount in a lifetime if she continued to exist. They felt she had played her part but should retire from the law and that more creative ways to provide legal service and deliver the human touch should be considered. How would we keep up with our international counterparts, how would we stay current and not put ourselves out of business in the long-run?

Apps were becoming available internationally such as “hellodivorce”, an online divorce process in the States and “DoNotPay” an app dealing with disputes regarding flight tickets and parking tickets in the US. While South Africa was still light years away from this by 2018 more than 1000 legal apps were in use around the world that made no use of day-to-day attorneys or advocates. They used algorithms and machine learning to solve disagreements or basic legal processes. How were we going to adapt… or die?

As we commit the Billable Hour back to the earth from which she came, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we celebrate her wonderful intentions and enthusiasm through her resurrection in the bodies of various new tariff arrangements and cost frameworks using all-inclusive fee arrangements and technology as the back bone of the future of legal in South Africa. The ingenuity and inspiration that her death has given legal practitioners around the world with regards to how they charge for services is moving.

Although dramatic, I don’t believe that this eulogy is as futuristic as some would like to believe. When I speak to legal practitioners about the opportunities that exist beyond the billable hour they stare at me blankly and say, “If clients are willing to pay me fees per hour, I will continue to charge them”, while the ethics of this statement are a whole different article on their own, the truth is that this belief is more firmly held by the legal fraternity than we like to believe.

Instead of focusing on more creative and lucrative ways of billing for business we instead spend our time and energy protecting what we know, when really the concept of retainers and contingency fees are already existing metamorphoses of the Billable Hour as we know her. Let’s be brave and stretch our minds and discover unlimited earning potential and capacity to service more clients outside of the billable hour, as she would want us to do in her memory.

This article was originally published on April 1, 2019 on Delia McArthur''s website


Delia McArthur is an admitted attorney with over a decade of legal service experience. She was previously CEO of Independent African Mediation for 5 Years and is currently Chief Legal Executive of Law For All’s diverse legal team of over 350 legally qualified professionals.

Delia is passionate about people. Her focus is on assisting individuals, organizations and leaders to find their “potential exponential” to suit the needs of their future clients, employees and managers.

She does this by exposing them to practical tools and skills to encourage them to build resilient teams with innovative, solution-orientated business cultures.

bottom of page