It’s a problem that has vexed Biglaw types since the legal “profession” turned into a business where money is made off of huge hours billed by disposable, replaceable associate attorneys — what’s the maximum number of hours associates can bill before they break?

The question is not one of how much high quality work a person can do. Nor is it really an issue of attorney efficiency. Instead, the firms are looking at the manual labor hours they can expect to get out of each of their cogs drones associates. Too few, and the firm ends up leaving money on the table. Too many, and associates leave faster than the firm can train replacements. Way too many hours, and people start, you know, dying and stuff.

Applying enough pressure so that the branches bend but don’t break is why office managers get paid the big bucks (most of them stopped being particularly useful attorneys years ago). Let’s check in on how one of the most profitable firms in the country gets it done….

Tipsters forwarded an email from Jennifer Kash, a partner in Quinn Emanuel’s San Francisco office. It’s a short email, but it’s an excellent breakdown of how partners think about associates’ time:

Subject: Need busy numbers today

In case you forgot: 5 is crazy busy, 4 is could do something but it would hurt and would have to be very small, 3 is you have some bandwidth and might be able to take on some more work, 2 is I could take on a bunch more work, my plate is not full, 1 is you need lots of work.

One further note, based on how busy everyone is if billing under 200 hours a month you are a 3. And don’t worry, you won’t be put on something huge, we just have lots of smaller cases that can really use help.

Send to me and copy entire cc line here. Need by Monday at 10 am.

Gracias and thanks for your continued hard work.

Just so we’re all on the same page, if you’re billing 200 hours a month, that’s a 2400 hour year. That seems to be level 4 on the Quinn scale of pain tolerance? Having billed (more than) 2400 hours in a year once upon a time, lemme tell that the way “but it would hurt and would have to be very small” is used in a normal human sentence is: “I’m so busy right now, I suppose I could make it to my mother’s funeral for an hour or two, but I’d really have to go right back to work afterwards.”

And obviously, level five is: “No, I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark, with nothing, no veil between me, and the wheel of fire!”

But here’s the thing about about this email that you really don’t get until you’ve done a stint in Biglaw. The partners only know how busy you are after it happens, when you input your time for the week or the month. That means that in real time, more often then not, you kind of have to raise your hand, you have to volunteer, to get something very small that might hurt.

So imagine the person at Quinn who got this email on Friday, and has billed 170 hours in the trailing 30 days. Does the person respond to this email saying they can take on another “small” project? What if they easily could spend more time on their current case, but they’ve been kind of taking it easy during these first days of spring? Should the person go in and bill hours over the weekend just to “prove” that they’re busy? How small is “small”? Duh, “small” never turns out to be as small as partners think it is.

It’s maddening, right? And that’s for a person who is already working pretty hard. Imagine the person who is on pace for a 210-hour month, and is just dreading she’s going to get stuck with something else. Imagine all the people who are not level 5, crazy busy, who don’t want to be crazy busy because crazy busy super sucks. Why should billing 200 hours (remember, those are just bills, not a reflection of how much time you were at work during the month) mean that you’ve got to volunteer for more work?

That, my friends, is Biglaw. And Quinn partners know that if they can keep every associate busting their ass, but not breaking their back, they’ll make money. Lots of it.

Wonderful profession, isn’t it? I wish they taught the “could do something but it would hurt” hypo in law school:

Jane has billed 120 hours halfway through April, with no end to her doc review in sight. A partner in her department requests some quick research on his case on a very minor issue of cross-border mergers gone wrong. It’s for a small client, and right now there are only a partner and a senior associate handling the client. The partner expects it will only take her five, ten hours max. Jane should:

A) Jump at the chance to do non-document review work with close partner contact, even though she’ll have to fit it in on Sunday.
B) Realize there are no minor issues, and nothing takes five hours, and she needs Sunday to recharge from all the hours she’s putting in Monday through Saturday.
C) Spend Sunday working on the doc review because it’ll keep her hours up, but it’s so mindless she can totally “review” while listening to a podcast or a book on tape, and she’ll totally want those hours in December when it’s time for her “performance” bonus.
D) Hide in her office while reading Above the Law and secretly hoping she loses a hand in a freak accident, or contracts a curable cancer so she can quit her job without disappointing her family and looking like a quitter.

Oh, that’s why they don’t ask this question in law school, because there are no right answers.

(Disclosure: Quinn Emanuel is an ATL advertiser.)


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