How should time be lived? A professor sees a billable-hours culture, and religious antidotes.

Author: Peter Steinfels

As visions of sugarplums give way to images of Father Time bearing his scythe or of bouncing babies clad in sashes labeled “New Year,” no one is surprised to encounter religious reflections on the meaning of time.

But in a law journal? Of course, the article by M. Cathleen Kaveny in the fall issue of the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal focuses on a peculiarly lawyerly kind of time: “billable hours,” the units that big law firms use to calculate what to charge their clients.

Lawyers, it turns out, are not the only ones whose lives are shaped — or rather distorted, in the author’s opinion — by what she calls the “billable hours mentality.” That mentality, she maintains, is only an extreme version “of the view of time dominant in American life today.”

The writer is the John P. Murphy Foundation professor of law at the University of Notre Dame Law School and a professor in the university’s theology department as well. She believes that religious traditions have resources to “provide a three-dimensional alternative” to the debilitating world of billable hours.

The reason so many lawyers, especially young lawyers, express dissatisfaction with their work, Professor Kaveny contends, is not just that they spend so much time at it, but also the way they understand and experience that time. That in turn is directly related to the way billing is structured: around how many hours can be charged, in a “diary sheet” always kept close at hand, to specific clients. Those billable hours often determine bonuses, promotions and partnerships.

Lawyers did not always bill clients that way, and small firms generally still don’t. But the growth of firms employing over 50 lawyers exploded after the early 1960’s, and computers gave managing partners a way to measure the productivity of young associates whom they could scarcely know personally.

“What view of the nature and purpose of time is embedded in the worldview of billable hours?” Professor Kaveny asks. “More importantly, what view of the shape of a lawyer’s life, of a human life, is fostered by that worldview?”

In her opinion, the “regime of billable hours” treats time “as instrumentally valuable, rather than intrinsically valuable.” What counts are the extrinsic goals of winning advantages for the client and profits for the firm. Intrinsic satisfactions like doing good work, nurturing younger associates or contributing to the community cannot be translated into billable hours.

The habit of treating time as a commodity with a price tag can seep into other aspects of lawyers’ lives, Professor Kaveny says, so that nonwork activities and even personal relationships are viewed in financial terms. Time spent with family or friends is calculated in terms of “trade-offs” and lost opportunities.

Worst, the worldview of billable hours treats all time as interchangeable: “An hour worked on Monday afternoon is treated the same as an hour worked on Friday night; logically speaking, 10 p.m. New Year’s Eve is no different from 10 a.m. Groundhog Day.”

How is one to treat the insight that comes in a split second? Or the hours of nonspecific reading or mulling that lie behind it? The billable hours framework levels all time, Professor Kaveny warns, flattening out its rhythms into a kind of “endless, colorless present.” Life is experienced as monotonous extension.

The regime of billable hours not only alienates lawyers from events “that draw upon a different and noncommodified understanding of time, such as family birthdays, holidays and volunteer work,” she argues, but ultimately erodes their sense of self and even isolates them from fellow lawyers.

Of course, she does not imagine that this grim culture affects every lawyer in every big firm in the same way or to the same degree. “My point is not one of logical necessity but of gravitational force,” she writes.

So what alternative can a religious tradition provide? Although Professor Kaveny makes reference to the Jewish Sabbath as well as to Islam, she uses the example of Roman Catholicism to illustrate the richer perspective on time that can be found in the doctrines and practices of a religious tradition.

For Catholics, time is not one long stretch but the medium in which the history of humanity’s salvation is played out and individual moments of decision and conversion occur.

Most obviously, the alternation of fasts and feasts, the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmastime, Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide can inculcate in the faithful a wholly different sense of time: “Unlike billable hours, time as qualified by the liturgical year is not freely exchangeable; Catholic Christians ought not to fast on the birthday of Christ nor feast on Good Friday.”

Professor Kaveny writes as a Catholic, but not, she insists, “to proselytize.” She hopes that thinkers in other religious traditions will develop their own, richly textured, countervailing views of time; indeed, she hopes for “nonreligious alternatives to the billable hours perspective” as well.

Professor Kaveny may underestimate how secular holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and New Year, or even the secularized versions of religious holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, can insert a skip, hop or pause in the incessant march of billable hours, or how inventive people can be in asserting the rhythms of nature and family life against the logic of the time clock and the workweek.

But these are only defensive skirmishes that offer temporary relief, she would argue. Resisting the billable hours worldview demands regular practices of reflection, ritual and renewal, practices embedded in an alternative view of life’s purposes that is shared and supported by a community of people, whether religious or secular.

In other words, watching the ball drop in Times Square and singing a wistful “Auld Lang Syne,” however invigorating, are not enough.

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