I had an ambitious plan this weekend to coordinate my outdoor yard furniture. I have hit that magic place in the temporal reality of home ownership where I have accumulated a hodge-podge of random stuff for my yard— kind of the urban yard equivalent of a hot mess. I considered spray painting all of the random tables, chairs, and benches a matching color and then buying all new cushions and umbrellas to bring some sort of cohesion to my urban oasis, but once I figured out the time necessary to undertake this thankless exercise, I realized I should just buy new furniture. The cost-benefit analysis of time crept into my thought process.
That regularly happens to me as I navigate life’s little adventure. You see, I have been keeping track of my life in six-minute intervals for almost 18 years. How much revenue was I losing if I spray painted my existing lawn furniture? A lot. So of course, I went to Ikea and bought all new coordinating furniture for my yard. Fast forward through four trips to Ikea, a pile of cardboard the height of a teenager, 17 Allen wrenches, team lifting, and roughly two days of assembling furniture and, all I can think of is Cher’s 1989 adult-contemporary rock anthem If I Could Turn Back Time .
I never really thought about how considering life in six- minute intervals impacts the soul until I spent a weekend assembling Ikea furniture—also a soul-sucking experience. For lawyers, our time is the widget we sell. We basically let clients rent the output of our brains six minutes at a time. While this rental arrangement can be generally lucrative for us lawyers, breaking our professional life into billable hours and then increments of billable hours imposes a bizarre value judgment on how we as lawyers go through life spending our time. Think of the 2011 Justin Timberlake movie In Time where citizens are required to barter for time in order to stay youthful and alive. Ouch! But in some ways, it’s not that different than the economic reality we have made for ourselves as a profession. We often judge our success as lawyers on how “busy” we are or how many hours we billed in a given year. We even measure our professional obligations in terms of billable hours. See Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct 6.1, where a “lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
I recognize that the billable hour is an artificial measure that we created in order to capture payment for our services, but as we struggle as a profession with substance abuse, depression and anxiety, and high suicide rates, we should consider what this “measure of our economic productivity” has imposed on us as human beings. I for one know that I struggle with measuring my worth by hours billed—almost as much as I struggled with building Ikea furniture. Ironically, while billing hours and building Ikea furniture are similar, at least my Ikea experience has resulted in a zen-like urban oasis. You have to admit that looks good!