Biglaw, Billable Hours, Holidays and Seasons, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: It’s a Dead Week

Tom Wallerstein

Recently, someone remarked to me that the week after Christmas is a “dead week.” He meant that many people take the week off, many companies are short staffed, and business generally is light.

When I was in Biglaw, I always worked the week after Christmas. Even though most partners wouldn’t be around, I figured that left it up to me to make sure my cases were being handled properly. With hindsight, I know that I probably wasn’t quite as essential as I thought, but that was my attitude at the time.

Now that I am a partner in my own firm, you might think that I can finally relax and let my associates mind the store. Negative. First, I care about my associates’ quality of (work) life. Having spent years in Biglaw, I am committed to trying to lessen at least some of the unpleasantness that often entails. So I want my employees to be able to take time off, or at least work a lighter schedule, during a week that is traditionally light. Second, running my own firm just raises the stakes. Now I really do have ultimate responsibility for all my cases, so I feel even more pressure to work harder and better than ever before.

So much for a dead week. Still, the comment got me thinking about what it means to be “swamped” with work versus having a “dead week,” and how those concepts differ when applied to Biglaw versus a running a solo or small firm practice….

For years, many Biglaw firms have had more work than available associate time, especially before the recession. So at many firms, associates have no trouble finding billable hours if they want them or need them to meet their usually onerous requirements or targets. In Biglaw, the week after Christmas could be either a dead week, or a week when associates bill more freely.

With a smaller practice, and with more cost-sensitive clients and matters, it might be harder to find billable hours. Many small firms, including my own, don’t have cases offering unlimited billing potential, and I know my clients appreciate that I don’t treat their cases that way. We’re fortunate to have more work than bandwidth, which makes it easier to be more cost-effective with each client, but that isn’t always the case for everyone. It’s only natural that the fewer active matters in a firm, the more time the attorneys might spend on any one case.

But you’d be wrong to think that running a solo or small firm makes it more likely to have — and enjoy — a dead week.

In Biglaw, administrative time is dead time. If you don’t have urgent billable work to do, it is easier to enjoy a light week because you don’t have a huge incentive to catch up on non-billable, often unappreciated administrative work.

When running your own shop, admin time is more necessary than ever. My firm has a full staff, but even so, the partners still must do an awful lot of non-billable work, and far more than associates in Biglaw. I have all the same admin tasks I used to have — entering my time and managing my email, for example — plus innumerable other tasks inherent in running a business.

So now, even if there are no imminent deadlines, I always have business-critical work to do. The week after Christmas isn’t dead because business development now requires hundreds of hours per year. This is notably different than in Biglaw. I’ve written before about the challenges of business development in a big firm context. With a small firm, business development is not a Quixotic task. Instead, business development is now an essential prerequisite for success.

The psychology of being “swamped” also is very different when working for yourself. In Biglaw, a dead week was a good thing. Regardless whether or not you took time off in the week after Christmas, your paychecks would look the same. You knew you could always make up for a light week with a heavy week later in the new year.

Now, the psychology is reversed. Being swamped means more income, and taking time off has a more direct effect on the business. In Biglaw, we bemoaned being swamped, viewing it as something negative that was bestowed on us by others. Now, I am grateful to be swamped, especially in this economy.

So, even if much of the world is taking next week off, I’m not. I probably won’t be meeting with many clients next week, but my little firm will be firing on all cylinders.

For the curious, here’s a sampling of what’s on my plate next week:

  • We represent a company sued in a consumer class action by well-respected class action attorneys. We won a first motion to dismiss, and next week I’m working on a motion to dismiss the amended complaint as well.
  • In early January, we have a trial in which my client is being sued for approximately $2 million. The other side just submitted a supplemental expert report a few days ago, and I’ll spend next week preparing a cross examination.
  • We have several new cases that are in the very early discovery stages. All of them will benefit from some quality time.

And of course, none of this includes the 20 or so hours I will spend on business development — or writing these pearls of wisdom, for that matter.

So, even more so than when I was in Biglaw, the week after Christmas is not going to be a dead week for me. And even though I’m swamped, I promise you I’m not complaining. When you run your own firm, swamped is good, and dead is bad. For anyone running their own firm, a dead week is no less than what you make of it.

Cheers and happy holidays.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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