Sunday, December 11, 2011

Charging By The Hour

I'm always amazed by the number of jobs and services that are paid or charged by the hour.

Charging by the hour makes the most sense for jobs where the main requirement is actually just to be there for a given amount of time - working at a front desk, or some sort of customer service position that doesn't have a big up-selling component. If you're serving ice cream, the store really needs you to be there for those eight hours, and it makes sense to pay accordingly.

But the most mysterious are those when the job is complicated and based around a particular outcome, not a length of work. Take something like legal work. At least in Australia, the vast majority of it is charged by the hour, with different lawyers having different hourly rates.

This creates exactly one good incentive effect - it means that your lawyer does not have incentives to scrimp and save on the level of work they're putting in. Incentivising your lawyer to spend a few more hours at the office to look up other possible defenses to your embezzlement charge is probably something you actually want to do. This becomes particularly important when the amount of work required is not clear up-front, which may well be true in legal cases. 

But balance this against all the other bad incentives this creates. First, the moral incentives - it punishes honesty. Their inputs are typically unobserved, and thus you create huge incentives to overbill. The honest ones won't, but they're going to be hurt for it. And  I never, never want to incentivise dishonesty. It's not as clear as outright fraud either - since lawyer time is billed out in six-minute increments, there's always a question of exactly how much to deduct. If you do 30 minutes of work, have a 2 minute toilet break, do another 30 minutes of work, grab a coffee and check your work email  for 4 minutes somewhere in the interim, is that 10 units or 11? What if you don't remember exactly when you started? Do you just round it up to some other number? I don't imagine the average lawyer worries about these questions much, but they've come to some accommodation on this, and are getting rewarded or punished accordingly.

The second is that charging by the hour actively punishes anybody who finds a more efficient way to solve a problem. If you find a way to solve a client's legal problems in a tenth as much time, you're going to earn less than the guy who just chugs through hours of sort-of-relevant research. A lawyer who can demonstrate an ability to solve problems quickly in several situations might eventually be able to charge a higher rate. But clients who don't know their reputation might shy away from someone who charges a lot. And what if the client has very little idea how long the task should take? Then they won't even appreciate the fact that you've been efficient.

The law isn't even the worst example of hourly contracting - having web designers being charged out by the hour is even more barmy. Surely you can have a rough fixed-price estimate of how much to charge for a basic web page?

Generally speaking, wherever I have a choice I'd rather pay people a flat fee for whatever the service is, and then build in explicit incentives where necessary ($50K upfront, another $50K if I'm found innocent, another $25K if my sentence is less than 3 years, etc.). Of course, it's hard to negotiate this with your lawyer, but when I'm writing the contract I'd rather do it this way.

More practically, I do have one choice available to me, and it is this - I don't want to work in any industry where people are charged out by the hour. And I especially don't want to be someone else's employee in that industry where I'm being paid a fixed salary but being charged out by the hour. It means that it's going to be very hard to have any sort of work-life balance and be successful, because the incentives of the firm are just to have you spend more time at the office.I also don't want to worry if I'm doing work too quickly from the perspective of the firm. Having to do a worse and slower job because the firm effectively demands it would be soul-destroying.

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