The ethics of inefficiency

March 15, 2015

We lawyers are bound by ethical duty to do a good job, to know the law, to act diligently, to keep our clients informed, to maintain confidentiality, to avoid conflicts of interest and to render candid advice. We are duty-bound to do right by our clients.

But are we duty-bound to be efficient? Is it unethical to repeat the same work twice and bill for it both times? If we can do something three times as fast, must we? If software exists that would slash a client’s expense, must we use it?


Our rules don’t answer this question explicitly. But it’s very hard to understand why we’d deny owing a duty of reasonable efficiency to our clients. Surely this duty can be derived from our explicit duties — competence, diligence, loyalty, avoidance of conflicts. Don’t billings bloated by ineffiency violate our express prohibition against unreasonable fees?

Of course there are practical challenges. What’s efficient or inefficient is subjective and contextual. The habits of individual lawyers do play a role. This duty shouldn’t compel lawyers to use methods that make them less effective.

But all of our ethical duties present some practical challenges, some difficult questions. Edge cases shouldn’t deter us from committing to core values.

So, is efficiency one of those core values or not?

Image CC BY-NC by freshwater 2006