Billable Hours

With just about six weeks to go in 2010, it’s time to check in on how people are doing with their billable hours.

At the start of the recession, hitting your hours could mean the difference between having a job and emailing Above the Law about stealth layoffs at your firm. This year, there hopefully isn’t that kind of pressure (at least not to the same degree). This year, hitting hours targets should be all about your bonus.

Of course, the difference in total compensation between a fourth-year associate who bills 1920 hours and a fourth-year who hits 2050 could be significant. The early buzz is that bonuses will be substantially bigger this year than last year, but the drop-off from one hours level to the next could be significant. Some firms might make bank-busting payments that will generate sweet headlines, but not all associates will hit the hours mark necessary for the top payment.

Still, with a month and a half to go, there’s time to “juke your stats,” as they say on The Wire. If finding an extra 80 billables between Thanksgiving and Christmas makes a huge difference, clients should be prepared for their attorneys to drag out any assignments they get. Sorry clients, associates gotta eat too.

So how are people doing? Take our poll, and get a sense of how many hours your peers are on pace for….

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If you talk to law firm partners who are in charge of collecting fees, they’ll tell you that getting clients to pay has become a real hassle ever since the recession started. Clients are trying to make their books look as palatable as possible, and if that means avoiding or delaying payments to their lawyers, well, then that’s what they are going to do. Collecting fees from clients is one of the top concerns of Biglaw managers.

And it should be a top concern for Biglaw associates. Nobody is going to be getting a bonus when the firm cannot realize its profits.

You’d think every practicing attorney would be on the same page with this by now. You’d think, at the very least, every person would be diligently putting in their time to give their firm the maximum opportunity to collect on their billable hours. But apparently some people haven’t gotten the memo that putting in your hours in a timely fashion is critical in this environment.

Well, at Simpson Thacher, they want to know your hours, now. And the firm is threatening to bring the hammer down on attorney timekeepers who are putting off this important paper work. Put in your hours, or STB will hit you where it hurts — the wallet…

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Glenn C. Lewis: he's a billable-hour machine.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on the legal misadventures of prominent D.C. attorney Glenn Lewis (no relation to the Canadian R&B singer, as far as we know). According to the Post, “Glenn C. Lewis is an acknowledged titan of the D.C. area divorce bar, a former president of the Virginia Bar Association who boasts that he is the most expensive lawyer in the region: $850 an hour. He has an impressive office in the District and an array of high-profile clients.”

One would expect a lawyer of Lewis’s stature and success to have impeccable judgment. But it appears that recently he made a serious misjudgment. He decided to sue a former client for an extra $500,000 in fees and interest, after having already received some $378,000 from that client.

Unfortunately for Glenn Lewis, that client was a lawyer — and decided to strike back. By the end of the whole episode, Lewis ending up owing his former client money — an amount in the six figures….

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After a bit of explanation last week, we’re back to live action. As you’ve likely concluded from the title, this is the second installment in a series. Last week we discussed hours spent in the office, with the lesson for future small law practitioners being this (based on your comments and emails): small law practice doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours.

On the heels of that conversation, I thought we should delve into the reason young associates so often spend those long hours in the office becoming fatter, more pale versions of their pre-law selves. It’s likely the bane of your existence regardless of the size of your firm or the size of the city in which you find yourself…

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I graduated law school in 2006 at the same time as a close friend. We’ll call him Brian, since that’s his name. Brian went to a top five law school; I went to a… well, not a T-5. He took a Biglaw job in Manhattan; I moved home to Georgia, where I ended up in Small Law. Having used each other as sounding boards throughout law school, it only made sense that we’d continue to do so as we transitioned into our respective practices. We shared many of the same fears and growing pains. For example: Did I pass the bar exam? Am I handling this issue correctly? What work am I allowed to, or even supposed to, hand off to a paralegal/secretary?

Beyond those general issues, I was surprised at how different our worlds really were on both a macro and micro level. Most of you have heard or been a part of discussions on the general differences that Small Law is supposed to provide: better hours, less pay, more freedom, etc. I want to move past broad generalities and share some of my actual experiences as compared with Brian’s, as a means to jump start a discussion. There have been some very thoughtful comments attached to the first two posts, and I hope that trend continues here.

This will be the first of several posts dedicated to a deeper dive into the world of Small Law and how it measures up to its Biglaw counterpart. Let’s start with…

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If you are a client looking for a lawyer, what will be the biggest influence on how much you pay that lawyer per hour? The excellence of the lawyer you hire? Please; pull yourself up off the ground and get back on your turnip truck.

Doesn’t it make more sense to pay more for lawyers at bigger firms? After all, size is what your looking for, not great legal work — right?

A new report, called the Real Rate Report, illustrates that firm size and city have more to do with price than the experience of the attorneys charging you money…

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People are talking about an interesting Slate article entitled “Leaving Big Law Behind: The many frustrations that cause well-paid lawyers to hang out their own shingles.” It’s currently the most-read piece on the site. But it’s actually quite similar, even down to some of the sources, to an article that appeared a few days earlier in Crain’s New York Business:

A lawyer’s hourly billing rate used to be a badge of pride — the higher the number, the more valuable (and supposedly brilliant) the lawyer. But over the past 18 months, a strange phenomenon has been sweeping the legal arena: Partners at major law firms are quitting because they want to be able to charge less for their services.

This is, of course, not a new development. Kash and I wrote about it in a December 2009 cover story for Washingtonian magazine, in which we interviewed a former member of the $1,000-an-hour club who left a large law firm and started his own shop so he could offer clients better value. But all the recent coverage — in Crain’s, Slate, and elsewhere — suggests that the trend is picking up steam.

Which kinds of lawyers are leaving Biglaw to hang up their own shingles? Why are they doing it? And how’s it going for them?

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Have you ever heard of a “chief value officer”? Let’s assume your answer is “no,” because you don’t spend your free time reading synergistic white papers produced by McKinsey & Co. But that’s something the good people at Drinker Biddle would like to change. The Legal Intelligencer reports that Drinker Biddle is creating a new position to help the firm focus on client value:

If in a push for efficiency law firms are changing the way they offer their services, it’s only logical that how they market those services needs to change as well.

That’s a concept not lost on Drinker Biddle & Reath, which, after scaling back what it calls its client relations department over the last four years, is ready to grow it in a different way after widely restructuring the department’s functions.

The restructuring is highlighted by the appointment of Chicago-based Kristin Sudholz as the firm’s first-ever chief value officer.

You gotta ask yourself: What kind of economy are we living in where a professional services firm needs to create an executive position to make sure clients receive value for the services they purchase? It’s almost like a automobile manufacturer needing to create a “chief driving officer” to oversee consumers’ ability to actually drive the product.

The thing is, I’m almost positive GM does have an executive in charge of “drivability” or something. So maybe this Drinker Biddle idea isn’t totally off the wall…

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Nixon Peabody was a winner in Signature Flight Support Corp. v. Landow Aviation, a dispute between two aviation companies at the Washington Dulles airport. Nixon landed a victory for Signature Flight, and filed a motion for Landow to pay attorneys’ fees in the case.

Landow thought Nixon’s fees were sky-high and opposed the motion, resulting in a review of Nixon’s bills by Judge James Cacheris (E.D. Va.). Judge Cacheris buzzed Nixon’s bills. From the National Law Journal:

U.S. District Judge James Cacheris of the Eastern District of Virginia determined that Nixon Peabody’s $1.57 million in fees was too high and slashed about $440,000 off that amount, awarding $1.13 million….

In his July 30 decision, Cacheris found that the number of hours Nixon Peabody expended on the case demonstrated a “lack of billing judgment exercised by plaintiff’s counsel” and “overall excessiveness of plaintiff’s fee request.”

Less than half a million slashed? Pocket change — though that was on top of $205,102.50 that Nixon says it had already excluded from the bill.

Reading the opinion offers lots of fun Skaddenfreude, perhaps particularly for attorneys laid off by Nixon Peabody early last year. Partner Louis Dolan got knocked by the court for spending hundreds of billable hours at the end of 2008 doing work better suited for a junior associate…

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Welcome to the next in our series on the results of the 2010 ATL/Career Center Associate Satisfaction survey. We’ve used the survey results to revamp the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link, with completely updated profiles. Each week, we are highlighting insider information that Members shared about their firms in the eight key areas of associate satisfaction covered by the Career Center.

Today, we look at how your firm and others measure up in one very important aspect: Billable Hours.

  • This Texas-based firm, with one of the world’s leading energy practices, does not have a billable hours requirement, although bonus amounts are contingent upon meeting certain hours thresholds.
  • While this "top-notch" New York-based firm has no official billable hours requirement, Lateral Link Members report that the unofficial expectation is between 2,100 and 2,400 hours. 
  • This California-based firm, which focuses on intellectual property, has an unusual billing system based on "billed, not billable, hours," and although the billable minimum is only 1,700 hours, hours "recorded but not billed out to the client are disregarded." 
  • First-year associates at this East Coast firm are required to bill 1,900 hours per year, while other associates are required to bill 1,950 hours, a requirement that Members concur is “attainable and reasonable.”

More highlights — check to see if your firm is featured — after the jump.

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