You guys know, don't you, that it's sort of taboo to ask a practicing lawyer to talk about billable hours? Or maybe it isn't and just feels that way to me. It's like asking someone their salary -- it's a yardstick that I know people will judge me by. Because the truth is I don't bill all that many hours and you guys are immediately going to think I'm a lazy slacker wimp and stop reading me and go off and read someone who's a REAL lawyer. I bill about 35 hours a week. Sometimes more; sometimes less. Today I've billed 7.2 hours so far. I'll be here another hour and a half or so, which will probably get me up to an even 8 billable hours. But I've been here since before 8. I didn't start billing until a bit before 9, if I remember right. I answered emails and tended to administrivia and realized it was admin assistant's day. There was a break in the day for a little party for the admin assistants. There's always some kind of interruptions -- emails from friends, a personal phone call or an errand, gossiping with the staff, lunch, whatever. It takes me about 10 hours to bill 7 to 8 hours.
Billing time isn't much fun. When I summered at BIGLAW and was getting used to it for the first time it made me so anxious. First, their expectations were so high (not for us summers, but for the real associates, which I was trying earnestly to figure out if I wanted to be). Second, it's a really confusing set of pulls. You fumble around on a project feeling like a complete idiot, with time ticking away, and at the end of two and a half hours you've been down half a dozen blind alleys and have half a paragraph of tepid conclusions and realize you don't really understand what you're supposed to be doing anyway. Do you bill that 2.5 hours? On the one hand, great, 2.5 hours, that's a nice big chunk of billable time -- great! I hope this will take me a lot longer to finish up. On the other hand, you realize, someone's going to look at this piece of paper and think, "We've hired us a complete idiot! It took her 2.5 hours to do this simple project, and she's still not finished." Maybe you should only write down 1 hour. But where are you going to get the other 1.5 hours? Stay later? What if while you're trying to catch up you're only slightly less clueless?
You can see how anxiety-producing it all is. My philosophy when I came here was bill everything, honestly and truly, and try to be smart about things but not to try to trick anyone into thinking I'm smarter than I am by cutting my own hours. That can only backfire. And I'm expensive enough to my clients. I'm not going to bill them for time I don't spend working on their matters.
This firm is pretty chill about billable hour requirements. It's one of the reasons I picked them. I can see what everyone bills and there's a pretty broad range; I'm neither at the top or at the bottom.
I didn't focus much when I was a law student on billable hours. I was on the BIGLAW track -- I figured, I'm smart enough to play in the biggest ponds, I don't want to hear the wimps and the naysayers whining about "quality of life." I figured that was silly sour grapes stuff from people who couldn't hack it. Then I got to BIGLAW and I saw how miserable this timing of every minute can make people. Including me.
First off, get out the back of an envelope and let's do some math. You've already multiplied 35 hours x 48 weeks per year (vacation, CLE seminars, holidays, miscellaneous unbillable stuff). That puts us at 1680 hours per year, give or take. Sounds kind of high to me, actually. Okay. At my BIGLAW, there was some confusion about the billable hour requirement. Sometimes I heard that there was "no billable requirement, just a target." I heard 2000 hours as that target, and I also heard 2250 as that target. There was some controversy about whether 2250 was a "target" or a "floor" for getting a bonus. I found the whole thing a little silly, people getting huffy and resentful about a bonus when they were already making salaries that were as big as anything I'd ever seen. But I can understand the desire for some clarity, especially with the life sacrifice these associates were making.
Okay, let's unpack these numbers a little bit. Let's use 2000 hours for THEM and 1600 hours for my life now. That's a difference of 400 hours. Billable hours. Okay. What's that mean? Well, remember, my average is about 35 billable hours per week. And I'm here about 50. 8 to 6 daily, or maybe 8:30 until 7ish, give or take, in the office, M - F. That means a BIGLAW lawyer needs to work the equivalent of more than 11 weeks more than me, just to get to 2000. Or they could make it up with every single Saturday, billing 8 hours. I haven't been tuned into BIGLAW enough to know where 2000 hours falls in the heirarchy, but I have a hunch it's not considered that high.
Okay, so if you're already coming in from 8 - 6, and you've got to squeeze an additional 11 weeks of billable hours into your life, that's a project. That's ambitious. That takes concentration and focus and thinking. You can't just chat with people, bounce ideas around. You can't help someone out with a question they've got on something you can't bill for. You can't go have a leisurely lunch with a friend. If the printer runs out of paper or there's a little birthday party for someone, well, that's time that's going to have to be stolen from something else. And you're already stealing a whole lot of time away from life as it is. It's not that lawyers are born jerks, it's that they've got to come up with these extra 11 weeks of life. And it's not there, really, unless you start taking away ordinary niceties. (To get to 2250, we're talking another 18 weeks of life. Where do you get it?!)
I found myself ready to growl at an assistant one day in my summer at BIGLAW because something, I can't remember what, was taking way way longer than it should, and I was already feeling inefficient that day, and I knew this time spent on the interaction with the assistant was going to be lost, and I didn't know where I would get it back, and I felt this desperate panic -- don't you know that my time is precious?! I wanted to yell at this poor assistant. Wow. I was surprised at the helpless ferocity that overtook me, and I didn't like it at all. It's one of the things that made me realize I could turn into a person I didn't like if I stayed at BIGLAW.
One of my favorite lawyers in town was a partner at BIGLAW in BIGCITY, and recently moved here with his wife and kids for a change of life. One day we were having lunch together and talking about the culture of his old firm. He was a bit of a rising star there, but after three or four years with rave reviews he got called into the managing partner's office, who was looking at his numbers. "I notice that every year, you have billed almost exactly our minimum billable requirement," the managing partner said. My friend had hit the requirement, or just barely exceeded it (like within .7 of an hour) each year. This, apparently, was not looked on with approval. My friend, to his credit, said, "I think my record and my performance here speaks for itself. I only regret that I can't get that extra 2.2 hours of my life back," and stood up and walked out.
I will sell my time for money up to a point, but after that no amount of money is enough to trade my time for. Which is why I'm here, and not there. I have enough money, and I have enough time.
[UPDATE: My friend Blue Rabbit writes about billables from the perspective of growing up as the child of a BIGLAW attorney. Interesting. It's why she's not a lawyer.]