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A Thought Experiment about the Academic “Billable” Hour or Law Professors’ Work Habits 

This essay imagines a world in which law professors tracked their work hours. It identifies some of the diagnostic attributes of the academic “billable” hour, explores the potential destructive dark side of timekeeping, and examines the nature of the relationship between the diagnostic and destructive qualities of recording academic time. Next, it introduces some of the political implications of recording academic time, and explores some of the normative discussions timekeeping might help inform.

We know little about what law professors do and how they spend their time. While we know law professors’ teaching loads, we do not know how many hours they spend preparing for classes, interacting with students, or developing and grading assignments, let alone how they spend their time pursuing all of these activities. Similarly, while we know quite a bit about how much law professors publish and about the quality and impact of their scholarship, we do not know how they identify topics for inquiry, research, write, and publish. Finally, while we know a fair amount about law professors’ service commitments, such as their committee assignments, we do not know how much time and how they spend their time on service activities. In short, we know very little about law professors’ work habits.

What we do not know matters. Timekeeping by law professors can generate useful diagnostic insights that may inform and improve legal academia. If all law professors were to record their time teaching, serving, and researching we would know more about what law professors do and how they do it and would be able to generate benchmarks and best practices, which may inform individual decision-making by faculty members regarding how to allocate their time, as well as institutional decision-making by law schools about how to assess and allocate their human capital resources and how to effectively train and mentor junior colleagues.

Timekeeping, however, also has a dark destructive side, as it may undercut the intellectual and contemplative culture of legal academia and may help create disincentives for thinking, unintentionally triggering and contributing to a process of replacing standards of quality and professional excellence with managerial reporting of hours. Indeed, the two sides of timekeeping, the diagnostic and destructive, may be inherently intertwined such that the very act of keeping academic time may undercut the core mission and objectives of legal academia.

Lawyers’ experience with the billable hour suggests some valuable lessons in terms of thinking about academic timekeeping. Unlike law practice, legal education need not and should not feature an inherent tie between recorded time and compensation. Distinguishing the diagnostic from the punitive by mandating academic timekeeping while liberating law professors from any compensation consequences attached to recorded time, may help address some of the concerns regarding the dark side of timekeeping. Thus, a time-limited, mandatory national experiment with academic timekeeping based on universal agreed upon time categories, supported by an apparatus of ethical timekeeping, and divorced from compensation consequences may avail legal academia of the diagnostic virtues of timekeeping while keeping its the destructive qualities at bay.

Admittedly, recording time may provide enemies of the academia with powerful ammunition. It may, for example, be used by critics to demand increased teaching loads and restrict investment in research. Yet continued ignorance about what law professors do may be too high a price to pay for a false sense of security. Moreover, robust knowledge about law professors’ work habits may inform normative discussions about what law professors should be doing, an important contribution given mounting criticisms of law schools and legal education.