Biglaw, Billable Hours, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues, Shameless Plugs

Inside Straight: The Managing Partner On Billing Time

First, a shameless plug: Here’s an interview in which Ari Kaplan and I discuss “Inside Straight and the Impact of Getting Published on Professional Success.” (That’s Inside Straight, the book, not Inside Straight, the column, although I guess I see the room for confusion there.)

But enough of that. Let’s hear from the managing partner of our law firm:

Ah! Orlando in March! What a fine time and place for our annual firmwide retreat.

I want to welcome everyone to this magnificent resort, and I want to take this opportunity to say a few words about a subject that’s dear to our hearts: Billing time.

To paraphrase Sir Thomas More in “A Man For All Seasons“: “When a man [fills out his timesheets,] he is holding his own soul in his hands like water; and if he should open his fingers then — he needn’t ever hope to find himself again.”

For the junior associates in the crowd, consider this: You will, at some point, have a slow month. You’ll get nervous that the firm will punish you for not having billed enough hours. To protect yourself, you’ll be tempted to borrow from the future. You’ll think that, if you add just four hours to this month’s time, you’ll have hit your billing target. If you charge those four hours to your largest client, no one will notice that you’ve slightly padded the bill. And you’ll figure that you’ll make this up to the client in some future month; you’ll work four hours some Saturday morning that you won’t write down, so the client will come out even in the long run. “That’s not really fraud,” you’ll think, so you’ll have eased your conscience. . . .

You’ll be wrong. It would be fraud. It would defraud the client, and it would cause our firm to lie along with you.

We don’t tolerate this. If you have a light month, we understand. So long as the quality of your work remains outstanding, we won’t punish you simply because your big deal closed or your big case settled. We’ll treat you fairly.

But we’ll also treat you fairly if you ever cheat on your time: We’ll escort you to the door, and we’ll bolt it shut behind you.

For the partners among us, please don’t sit there sniggering. We’ve done a little preparation for this annual retreat. Over the past week, we’ve reviewed your e-mails and interviewed your secretaries to double-check your time-keeping patterns. We’ve noticed that some of you never record any time at all until the last day of the month. On the 30th of the month, you review all your e-mails for the month, try to reconstruct what you’ve worked on, and only then fill out timesheets for the entire month.

That could charitably be described as a half-hearted effort to capture the truth, but we expect better from you.

There’s a smaller group, however, that has plainly slipped over the edge. These are the folks who don’t record their time until the last day of the month, go through 30 days of e-mails to reconstruct what they worked on, and then metronomically record between 180 and 185 hours billed for the month, consistently hitting our suggested target of 180 billable hours for partners.

That strains credulity, and it tries my patience.

Perhaps because we labor in fields “planted thick with laws,” we often puff ourselves up and pontificate about our integrity: “Your Honor, how dare he!? Counsel has impugned my integrity, and I simply won’t stand for it!”

But when we’re alone in our offices, integrity somehow doesn’t mean quite as much.

Those days are over. If I hear even a whisper that lawyers at this firm are recording time improperly, we will impose severe, consistent punishment. That includes the biggest rainmakers among us, even though we know you might pack your bags and move on. That’s okay; we’d rather not have you here.

A principle isn’t a principle until it hurts; from this day forward, this law firm will have principles.

Okay, Smitty, the lectern’s all yours. Let’s review the performance of each office and evaluate how they contributed to this year’s results.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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