Yours, mine and hours | Marcel Strigberger
Friday, June 11, 2021 @ 2:37 PM | By Marcel Strigberger
I once had lunch with a colleague (remember that pre-COVID-19 ritual?) I asked Barry to spend a few extra minutes enjoying a second cup of tea. Barry, of my vintage, told me he bills $350 per hour. He noted this second cup would take 10 minutes to drink and ergo it would cost him about $60.
Trying to mitigate the cost I asked, “Barry, your partner gets 50 per cent?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he agreed.
“So the tea will only run you $30,” I reasoned.
He nodded his approval. I then added, “Of your income, you pay about 50 per cent for taxes?”
“So it’s really only costing you about $15 for that second cup?”
(My Socratic reasoning was winning out, I felt.)
“But it would still cost me $1.50 for the tea.”
I agreed. Added to the $15 this was a total of $16.50 for that second cup.
“And in order for me to earn $16.50 net after taxes, I’ve got to bill $33.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
We both noticed a student sitting nearby having a tea and it was costing him only $1.50. Barry and I soon concurred that we would have to pay over 20 times this amount for that next cup of tea. We both envied that student.
I quickly took a sip of my first tea, and we both stormed out of the restaurant.
As lawyers we have to be mindful of our time.
And what is our routine unit of billing time? Point one of an hour. Is that metric? Not exactly as that works out to six minutes. Is it fair to the client? What if your phone conversation takes four minutes? You still bill for six? How would you like to go to an expensive chocolate store and the clerk puts a few premium truffles on the scale? They weigh 850 grams, but she charges you for 1000 grams saying, “We sell these by the kilo. That’s close enough.”
And unlike seeing the evidence on the scale, with a lawyer’s bill, the clients must rely on the honour system.
I knew a lawyer X, who used to bill rather creatively. If he called someone and reached their voicemail, he would bill the client .1. If say the client returned his call and left him a voicemail, that was another .1. Nothing was achieved for the client. That’s like the chocolate store clerk saying, “Those truffles aren’t available today. That will be $43 please.”
I discovered X’s billing practices during an account assessment. The officer slashed X’s bill big time, finding other irregular and unscrupulous time padding such as travel time to walk to the courthouse. I was so pleased with the assessment office’s decision that I was tempted to get him a box of chocolate truffles. It probably would have been OK; I would not have put it on my client’s tab.
But we lawyers can also be bitten by our clients who don’t value our time. A separated lady once pleaded to meet in the evening at her suburban house as she had two small children and it was hard for her to travel downtown to my office. I attended and spent two hours meeting her. She did not retain me ultimately. I sent her a bill, which she refused to pay claiming “This was just a getting to know you meeting.”
I thought this added a new dimension to lawyers’ billable time. I could have pursued her further and assessed my account. I doubt that the assessment officer would have concluded, “I’m not allowing these two hours. Pure gouging. After all this was just a getting-to-know-you-meeting.”
Lawyers’ fees have come a long way. In ancient Rome legal fees were originally banned. In other words lawyers earned about what I did with that aforementioned lady. Fortunately, Emperor Claudius lifted the ban. Hail Claudius! But caveat, lawyers’ bills had a ceiling of 10,000 sesterces. But before you say wow, a Wikipedia entry reads, “This was not much money. The Satires of Juvenal complained that there was no money in working as an advocate. “
That’s exactly how I felt after that just-getting-to-know-you meeting. At least she had access to justice, albeit temporarily.
And unlike doctors, lawyers generally respect our clients’ time, rarely keeping them waiting. Doctors on the other hand waste our time deliberately. I’m certain all first year medical students take a mandatory course called “Waiting 101.” It’s probably in their oath. I Googled”“Hippocrates question” and what came up was, “Hang on and take a seat.”
We also don’t waste our time sleeping. A U.S. federal survey noted that lawyers sleep seven hours per night. Doctors sleep more than lawyers, logging seven hours and two minutes. I’d say the doctors just pretend to sleep to keep us waiting two extra minutes.
I am retired from practice now and I certainly enjoy the luxury of that second leisurely cup of tea (though not at a restaurant these COVID-19 days). I wish I would have allowed myself that well-spent indulgence back then more often. I certainly now would not miss the $33.
Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. Visit www.marcelshumour.com. Follow him @MarcelsHumour.
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