Law school graduates who choose to embark on a career in the private sector often see their idealism — along with hours of sleep — disappear, courtesy of two words that can make even the most seasoned attorney cringe: billable hours.
It is not uncommon for law firms to require upward of 2,000 billable hours per year from newly hired associates. If you are doing the math, that’s about 38.5 hours of billable work per week. By the time you add in administrative duties, professional development, pro bono work and, if time allows, a vacation, it is not uncommon for associates at large firms to put in 60 to 80 hours a week to meet their billable goals.
While such masochistic practices have been a rite of passage for lawyers since the dawn of the profession, one Lexington firm, Fogle Keller Purdy Law PLLC, decided to try things differently a few years ago when some members of the firm’s executive committee noticed that the traditional way of doing things was no longer working.
“People were basically just worn down, overworked and unhappy,” said Kamp Purdy, a partner and member of the firm’s executive committee. “Our executive committee decided to take a step back and really think about what is important to us.”
The boldest change to come out of those discussions was the firm’s decision to no longer set billable goals for its lawyers. Instead, the firm decided it would emphasize its role in the communities that it serves, by participating in charitable work and local civic organizations.
“It is hard for a lot of people to believe, but as a firm our emphasis is not about money,” Purdy said. “What we want is for people to feel like our firm is part of the community and that we are invested in what is happening.”
But Purdy said something strange happened when the firm decided to stop emphasizing the importance of money: The firm made more of it. In the last year, revenues have grown by about 20 percent, and in the past few months, the firm has added about 15 new employees to keep up with the workload. Purdy attributes those increases to having motivated, happy attorneys, which in turn brings about better results for the clients.
“A lot of law firms concentrate on what they do,” Purdy said. “We decided to start concentrating on why we do what we do.”
Fogle Keller Purdy also has Kentucky offices in Louisville, Florence and Bowling Green, along with an office in Charleston, W.Va. The firm has about 41 attorneys, 21 of whom work out of the Lexington office. Purdy said the firm is now the sixth or seventh largest law firm in the state.
“We’re still very much in growth mode,” Purdy said. “The less emphasis we place on money and billable hours, the better our firm has performed. We’re showing you can get things done by creating a great work environment rather than placing so much emphasis on money.”
Eliminating billable hours wasn’t the only change the firm made. Dress codes were eliminated, allowing lawyers to exchange their suits and ties for jeans and Polo shirts. Employees were told if they had a childcare conflict they could bring their child to work, so long as it wasn’t disruptive to other employees. Because there were no longer set goals for billable hours, attorneys at the firm experienced less micromanagement from senior partners.
“If we were a tech start-up and we were doing all of these things, nobody would think it’s weird,” Purdy said. “But when you do it at a law firm people think you are crazy, because nobody else does it this way.”
Purdy admits that the relaxed office culture didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly older lawyers who were groomed in a more traditional legal structure.
Fogle Keller Purdy originally started as a workers’ compensation law firm in 1984, but through a series of acquisitions, it has grown to include practices in most areas of the law. Purdy said that since management implemented the changes at the firm, at least one acquisition fell through, because a lawyer at the firm being acquired did not believe in the changes.
“They wanted to do things the traditional way,” Purdy said. “We had similar problems with some people we already had on staff. Not everybody bought in to what we are doing.”
Purdy said the firm will continue on the course it has laid out and stress a positive work environment over billable hours and revenue. He said despite the changes, the firm is still offering new hires out of law school competitive packages compared to similar firms in the area.
“In my opinion we give a young lawyer all the benefits of a large firm, except you don’t have to give away the first four or five years of your life,” Purdy said. “We want to be known as a great place to work. If we do that, everything else should take care of itself.”