Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for billables

So here's the thing about billable hours.

There are pros to the billable hour requirement, for both lawyers and clients.  (I won't get into them here.)

And there will always be firms with a worse billable hour requirement than yours.  I know someone who has to hit 2000 billable, 400 nonbillable every year.  That's a total of 2400 hours, for those of you who are bad at math.  I know someone who had to keep track of all his time, even "Went to lunch" and "Surfed the internet" for a minimum of 7.5 hours every single day.  I know people who have an unstated requirement.  Believe me, it could always be worse.

(Of course, it could be amazingly easy, like a 1700 billable requirement.  Oh 1700 billable requirement ... how I lust after thee.)


If you're a lawyer, complaining about billable hours is a fact of life.  The trouble is when people think complaining equates to laziness.

Believe me, if you made it through college and law school, if you passed the bar and got a job with a firm, you are not a lazy person.  You probably like working, which is why you've been working your ass off for quite some time now.

Complaining about the billable hour is more complicated than that.

Every lawyer knows the "Company Man" lawyer.  The guy or gal who defends the firm and its policies to the bitter end.  And that person makes complaining very difficult, because they generally turn the discussion into something it is not.

So let's get a few things out of the way.

I like working.  I am glad that I am not unemployed.  I'm glad I never had to deal with more than four months of unemployment--believe me, that was bad enough.  It's just that I think gratitude for my job should not have to equate to slavish adoration for policies that dick me over.

How does an associate get billable hours?

By working for partners who give them assignments.

What happens when partners have no assignments to give?

The associates are screwed.  Note that there is nothing the associates could have done about this situation.  Good and less-good associates alike suffer when there is no work to be had.  And this is true at every firm with a billable hour requirement.  Just because your firm might have a friendlier corporate atmosphere than most does not mean your firm ever stopped being a business.

What happens when there are assignments to be had, but it's all mind-numbing work ... like X many months of document review, for example?

Well, then the associate has something to do, and will continue to earn his or her paycheck.  However, the partners' incentive to find new and diverse work for the associate -- to participate in the associate's development as a lawyer, in other words -- is dramatically decreased.  Because the associate is "busy."

This is a double-edged sword.  Sure, you aren't becoming a better lawyer, but no one really knows that.  Furthermore, your comeuppance is a long way down the road since you're packing in your hours now. An associate might be a total crap lawyer (which I suspect may have been true in my case), but no one will know for months, since it's kind of impossible to screw up crap work.

Why was I able to take off two weeks last December, and other lawyers work on Christmas?

Well, it helped that a huge part of my main case last year ended mid-December, but the primary reason is that our year ran January - December.  Some firms run October - September, meaning you can take off time during the summer after you've built up your hours.  This is something I never knew before coming to work at a firm, and something I never would have thought of asking about when I was interviewing.

Did I love my two week Christmas vacation?  Hells yes.

Did I love that I could just take weekend trips, knowing that there was an almost-endless supply of work that would await me upon my return?  Of course.

Did that ever make up for my growing resentment of document review?  Unfortunately, no.

My first week at awesome new job was literally like a breath of fresh air.  If not for the unstated open-door policy, I would have done a "No-More-Billable-Hours!" dance to Mumford and Son's "Little Lion Man" for roughly twenty minutes on my first day.  The unedited version.

Since then, I have realized there are some benefits to keeping track of your time in six-minute increments.  It does help focus you and guarantee that you do your best to remain efficient.  There are times here at new job when I could use that, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if that took me 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, or 54 minutes.

But is it worth the anxiety of wondering, "Did I spend too much time?  Not enough?  Will they cut my time when they send out bills?  Will that hurt me?  Will I ever even know?  If I take more time next time, will they wonder what's wrong with me?"

Now, I just get my job done.  When it takes me a long time, I stay late and finish.  When it doesn't, I email my friends.  Or I read.  Or I surf the internet. Or I work on a short-story.

And that doesn't make me lazy.

That just makes me happy.

A song I hear often on the radio: "Forget You," Cee Lo.


  1. Interesting post! I'd be terrible at keeping track. :) So I guess it's a good thing I don't have to!

  2. Thanks ma'am. Cheers not keeping track of hours!

  3. I was always curious about the billable hours thing. Great post!

  4. Interesting insight into lawyer-dom. It's a field I've always wondered about but (have been too lazy) to learn about because it is intimidating. Learn something new every day :)

  5. I really enjoyed your post, you tell it like it really is. I love the attitude! :)

  6. Billable hours: one of the main reasons I've never worked in a civil law firm! :)