Billable Hours, Job Survey, Pro Bono

Associate Life Survey: What Did You Really Bill?

been-waiting-3-hourz-for-a-high-five.jpgWe received about 1500 responses to last month’s ATL / Lateral Link survey on how much of your billable work in 2008 was really for “client billable” time, as opposed to pro bono or administrative matters.

Earlier in January, we had noted that more than a quarter of you couldn’t bill 1800 hours last year, but commenters pointed out that even these numbers were probably too rosy:

It is hard to tell how busy associates really were based on this data. One problem is that “billable hour” may mean different things at different firms. At some firms “billable hour” = client billable hours only. But many firms give billable hours credit for pro bono, recruitment and professional development work. I would be curious to see how much CLIENT BILLABLE hours associates had in 2008 and what they are expecting for 2009.

On the pro bono front, it turns out that the heart is only half empty. About a third of associates spent 100 hours or more on pro bono last year, and roughly 14% had more than 200 hours in pro bono:

Results: How many hours did you did you devote to pro bono matters in 2008?

 Pro Bono Hours   2008 Percentage
Less than 100   68.64%
100 to 199   17.66%
200 to 299   6.13%
300 to 399   3.24%
400 to 499   2.52%
500 or more   1.81%

Since relatively few associates had more than a hundred pro bono hours, there was generally only a one or two percent difference between the levels of “client billable” billable hours in 2008 and the overall billable hours reported. So, for example, while 14.32% of respondents fell short of 1600 billable hours last year, that percentage rose to 16.65% of respondents when only “client billable” hours were counted.

The table below compares your 2007 hours and predictions for 2008 (from our November survey) with the overall billable hours we reported last month and the “client billable” hours from our latest survey results.

Results: How many hours did you bill in 2007 and 2008?

 Billable Hours   2007      2008 
Less than 1600     3.29%   7.93%   14.32%   16.65%
1600 – 1699     2.58%   6%   5.75%   5.55%
1700 – 1799     3.99%   5.61%   7.36%   8.87%
1800 – 1899     8.45%   7.54%   9.37%   11.39%
1900 – 1999     11.5%   16.44%   13.6%   15.21%
2000 – 2100     22.54%   21.08%   18.11%   15.79%
2100 – 2199     12.68%   14.31%     11.11%   9.52%
2200 – 2299     11.03%   6.77%   7.98%   5.77%
2300 – 2399     12.44%     5.42%   4.64%   4.33%
2400+     11.5%   8.9%   7.76%   6.92%

These numbers are, as commenters predicted, a bit bleaker than last month’s results, but about 42% of respondents still managed to bill at least 2000 hours to clients last year, as opposed to pro bono or administrative matters.

Will that hold true this year?

Some commenters thought hitting 2000 hours was actually pretty easy:

4, 18: Um, I definitely billed way over 2000 hours last year… and that’s client billable. In litigation it’s pretty easy to do. I had four appeals (one of which was a bet-the-industry appeal that I was working 48 hour stretches on), like countless depositions, unending motion practice, and two full-blown trials. Do you know how much time you have to bill preparing for a 20 day trial? And then for the trial itself?

It’s easy to rack up crazy hours in litigation when you’re busy.

Other commenters disagreed:

Hitting 2000 hours for 2008 was doable because the bulk of the slow-down didn’t occur until September/October. Only because I had very high hours before then was I able to just barely hit 2000 hours for the year. 2009 will be much worse. I’m worried.

Among survey respondents, pessimists outnumbered optimists about 1.5 to 1:

  * Roughly 44% of survey respondents expected 2009 to bring fewer billable hours than 2008, with 21% expecting much lower hours.

  * About 29% of respondents, however, expected at least a few more hours this year, with almost 9% expecting many more hours.

  * About 27% of respondents expect 2009 hours to be about the same as 2008.

Justin Bernold is a Director at Lateral Link, the sponsor of this Associate Life Survey.

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