As many of my posts outright discuss, or at least indicate, I am a lawyer. Or, as I introduce myself on Wednesday nights in a dank church basement as I drink weak coffee and eat a stale donut:
"Hi, I'm Abby. And I'm a lawyer."
This has prompted one reader to ask me to explain what in the heck a billable hour is, and what it means for lawyers to work on a billable-hours basis.
The short answer is that a billable hour is the way Satan tells time, and to work on a billable-hours basis is to work for the devil.
Have a great weekend!
Just kidding. I of course have a longer answer.
The first thing to know is that not all lawyers work with billable hours. As far as I know, the only ones that do are the ones who work at law firms. It's their penance for making more money than their non-firm brethren and sistren.
The second thing to know is that billable hours put the ache in "administrative headache." It boondoggles the mind that something so ministerial could seem so benign in theory and transform into something so heinous in practice.
The basic way law firms make money is to bill their clients for the amount of time the firm's attorneys spend on a given client's work over a given period of time -- usually a month or a quarter. Attorneys' billable rates depend on the seniority of the attorney and the market the law firm is in. That means a partner bills more per hour than a junior associate, and a firm in New York City can charge more per hour for all of its attorneys than a firm in Portland, Maine can. To get a sense of the difference, some partners in New York City can charge around $1,000 per hour, and mid-level associates get billed out at several hundred dollars per hour. Partners in a place like Portland probably bill out at the same rate as associates in New York City, and associates in Portland probably bill out at the same rate as secretaries in New York City.
What the law firm wants to know, then, is the multiplier. How many hours times $1,000 can we put on the bill for Partner A, and how many hours times $350 can we put on the bill for Associate B?
This, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road.
Each lawyer at a firm needs to keep track of the amount of time he/she spends doing this/that work. Of course, nothing is ever simple, which means most work is never done in neat hourly increments. To account for that, firms mandate that their attorneys track their time in either 15-minute or 6-minute increments. My firm used the 15-minute yardstick, which meant that I had to tally my work in quarter-hour parcels. For example, an explanatory email to one client could get a 0.25 entry in my time entry wizard, and revisions to a summary judgment brief for another client could get a 3.75 entry in that same wizard.
Because the time tallies get submitted to the client for review, and because clients are ogres who want to know what they are getting for all the money they are shelling out, attorneys also have to provide meaningful descriptions of the work they did in the time they report. It's not enough to just say that on Friday, August 17, 2012, I did 3.75 hours of work for BossyPants Client. You've got to say what you did during those 3.75 hours.
That shouldn't be so hard though, right? I mean, you're sitting there doing the work. Just make a note of it as you're doing it or after you've finished it!
Oh, my little goldfish. Do another turn through your plastic castle.
When you're working for seven different clients on seven different matters with dozens of assignments for each and your phone keeps ringing and your email keeps dinging and your sleep cycle looks like the output from a heart-rate monitor and you have to schedule time for bathroom breaks and coffee runs and you have pre-deadline deadlines and you sometimes have to race home to see your offspring or your mate, keeping neat little notes about how you're spending your time somehow always obviously falls to the bottom of your life's torturous to-do list. It'd be easy if you could just have a constantly regenerating memo that says "How I Spent My Day: I Got My Ass Kicked by This Client, That Client, and That Client. Love, Abby." But it's not easy because those kind of sweeping generalities are not smiled upon.
So, at the end of the month, you get reminder after nasty reminder that TIME IS DUE SOON! KISSES! from some anonymous/automated Firm Police member. And you look at the random scraps of post-it notes and gum wrappers and take-out napkins that piled up in the corner of your desk, right under the three-hole punch you stole from your paralegal and the book on The History of the Internet you actually had to read. All you find on those sad excuses for a journal are even more random notations about what you did three Fridays ago, and for who. You try to assemble that literary Tourette's syndrome into a presentable haiku of the sado-masochism that is your life. You go into your firm's oh-so-user-friendly-unfriendly-blinking-cauldron-of-death time entry application and you write things like:
Friday, August 17, 2012
3.75 hours. Recollected back to the days when I was subjected to billable hours. Wrote blog post to share that misery with my unsuspecting readers, who deserve better. Rejoiced that I am now simply a salaried lawyer. Ate a large, carb-heavy lunch to try to erase the pain of the memories.
2.50 hours. Researched the meaning of life.
1.25 hours. Participated in conference call with friends who are still at law firms in a brainstorming session about how to rescue them. Considered life rafts, Humvees, and slides made of lollipops as alternatives worth considering.
The third thing worth knowing about billable hours is that they define the life of a law-firm attorney. So as to identify dead weight and/or people with lives outside the office, law firms have minimum requirements for billable hours. Not only do those thresholds exist on a yearly basis (ie. You Must Bill 50,000 Hours Per Year If You Don't Want To Get Shit-Canned), in many firms they also exist on a daily basis (ie. Please Account For At Least 8.50 Hours Of Your Day, And If You Were Not Doing Work For A Billing Client During Any Of Those 8.50 Hours, Please Leave An Entry Under "Other" And Do Your Best To Come Up With A Creative Way To Explain How You Wasted Your Time, And Ours.)
As such, there is a constant, albeit subtle, layer of panic in the hearts and stomachs of all law firm lawyers who know that they have to at least meet those minimum thresholds of billables. A slow day (ie. a day with low billable hours) today means that tomorrow it's dinner at the office or that work is going to have to get done on the weekend. Otherwise, you'll do the unthinkable and fall behind the pace you need to keep in order to meet your minimums.
The corollary to this is that lawyers with a high billable count at the end of the year are usually rewarded with a higher bonus. In addition, lawyers with high billables over multiple years are usually best suited to get themselves made partner or otherwise promoted within the firm. To law firm higher-ups, billables are a tangible sign of an attorney's commitment to the work, value to the firm, and capability as a lawyer.
There you have it. Everything I can remember about what it means to work under a billable hour regime. My PTSD may be getting in the way of a full-bodied recollection, and I apologize for any gaps in this retelling. I have been seeing a hypnotist, though, and I feel like we're on the cusp of a really powerful breakthrough. Just the other day I remembered the automatic coffee machine we were all so excited to get in our office kitchen back in 2007. Which indicates to me something big is just around the corner of the cobwebbed recesses of my mind.
The wide, wonderful world of being a lawyer.
Go forth and have a joyous weekend, rich in the knowledge that this is not your world.
Unless you're a lawyer. In which case, I just hope you're not working at a firm.
If you are, you just wasted 0.25 hours.
What to get in on the Dear Abby fun? It's easy! All you have to do is send me a present and the other stuff that's described here.