This is not a column about getting bloated Biglaw partners into running shape, as much as many of them need the exercise. Instead, let’s focus on another 10K milestone, one that Biglaw associates chase after, spurred on by a number of incentives, ranging from a simple desire to keep their hard-earned jobs to the burning ambition necessary to even aim for partnership: reaching 10,000 billable hours.
In the popular conception, 10,000 hours of practice at any skill is a critical hurdle to achieving mastery. It does not work that way for lawyers, especially those that start out in Biglaw.
As anyone who has started their career in Biglaw knows, the early years are more about survival than anything else. The most critical skill is adaptability, both in terms of being able to handle the lifestyle stresses presented by the Biglaw junior associate experience, and recognizing just how little law school has prepared one for Biglaw legal practice. In fact, I would say that for purposes of tracking personal progress towards the 10K mark, the first year of Biglaw practice (and maybe two or three depending on whether one is in a firm that “rotates” their juniors to expose them to different practices areas) should be thrown out. Consider that time as the foundation that allows for future productive lawyering if it makes you feel better. And first-years would do well to disabuse themselves of the notion that they will be “contributing” or doing “quality” work. Obviously they need to do their best, and perform up to Biglaw standards, but the hard truth is that the first-year in Biglaw is there to force high-flying and well-credentialed aspiring lawyers to humbly confront two uncomfortable questions. First, do you even want to be doing this? And second, even if you want to, are you good enough?
Either way, the billable hours (even in the new leaner Biglaw, or maybe simply because the new Biglaw is leaner) will be there for the taking. And they must be taken, preferably with gusto — just ask your local equity partner. Who wants to keep that equity status, and needs your youthful stamina to help mine the billable-hour quarry until bare.
For many Biglaw associates, the 10K “quality” billable hour mark will be hit sometime between their 5th and 7th years in Biglaw. In my case, I averaged about 2150 billable hours a year as an associate, so I hit the target sometime between my 5th and 6th years out. Anecdotally, it seems that many Biglaw associates point to the midlevel (years 5-8) stage of their careers as the point where things really start to click, and they developed a sense that they could handle anything thrown their way. So there is some validity to the notion that 10,000 hours is a marker of something. But the goal of Biglaw is not to become a competent Biglaw midlevel associate. It is to generate people capable of practicing at the top of their profession, who can charge $1,000 an hour and truly feel like their clients are getting a bargain, while building books of business that match the municipal budgets of some rural counties.
Put another way, 10,000 hours of document review may result in someone becoming a more expert doc reviewer (and future top customer of the local chiropractor and optometrist), but that is not what Biglaw wants. Nor is it the recipe for a long, fulfilling career as an attorney. Unfortunately, document review as a skill, no matter how important it may truly be, is considered a commodity. The 10,000 hours that count the most are those that are applied to one’s bank balance of “highly valued skills”-related hours. The truth is that it can take decades for one to top off that bank account in the Biglaw environment, which is why smaller firms are rightly touted as places where skill development can be accelerated.
The differentiation between standard billable hours and those that also count toward skill development became clear to me when I was tasked at one of my former firms with developing the “core competencies” that IP associates were expected to demonstrate on their way to partner. To be honest, most people make partner in Biglaw without hitting all the core competencies, but the idea that certain skills are more high-value than others certainly came into focus when I went through that process. Keeping it simple, for litigators the highest-value skills relate to trial practice, followed by brief writing, oral argument, and deposition in some order. Throw in mediation too. Accruing ten thousand hours practicing those skills should result in a well-rounded litigator. For most Biglaw attorneys, that milestone may take a decade or more to reach. But once it is reached, then the fact that Biglaw’s matters tend to be more involved and high-stakes serves as an amplifier to their effectiveness. So you might get there faster in a smaller firm, but once there, the Biglaw experience can make the achievement more meaningful.
Ultimately, associates (and partners too for that matter) should always be keeping a close eye on the quality of their billable hours. And always keep in mind that there is always another milestone to hit, and that real experience is the one thing this business can’t take away from someone. So if you hit the general 10K mark as a litigator, then it is time to build toward the 10K mark in trial time, or oral argument, or mediation. How to get there may depend as much on your business development skills as your skills as an attorney. For associates with an interest in a long career as attorneys, the question may boil down to whether their hours are going to skill development or to padding partner profits. If it is simply the latter, reaching the 10K mark would be more an exercise in masochism than a noble pursuit. The true goal is always to enjoy the race itself, and not just reaching the finish line.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.