Billable Hours

Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of Biglaw’s most pressing issues: the failure of senior partners to pass along clients to younger partners. But that is not the only problem some of Biglaw’s senior partners are causing for their firms and the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, a measurable portion of senior partners, those of the august titles and stratospheric billing rates, are among the worst offenders of one of Biglaw’s most notorious shortcuts to extreme profitability: creative time entry and billing.

While I hate to acknowledge, even though I have seen it firsthand, that partners make up time entries wholesale for work never performed, it is not hard to realize that in this age of the multimillion-dollar partner there exists a tremendous incentive for such behavior. Or at least for partners to “round up” time entries, a tacitly accepted practice within Biglaw.

Incentives matter, and the more richly compensated a senior partner is, the more pressure there is on them to put down a solid four to five hours for “reviewing and revising” a draft brief on Tuesday, only to make a similar entry when they review a more robust version of the same brief a few days later. And because senior partners are frequently responsible for a horde of timekeepers below them, the tone set by the lawyers at the top of the pyramid has an impact on the behavior of those lower on the chain….

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This coming Friday, it is the inalienable right of all Americans to sleep off their hangovers, or riot at Walmart, or do anything at all rather than work for The Man. But Biglaw is a different country. As illustrated by Elie’s decision matrix, the “choice” of whether to work on this sacred day is, for the denizens of the law firm world, fraught with other pressures and expectations. We all know that Biglaw careers demand a Faustian bargain: in return for their fat paychecks (and bonuses?), lawyers are expected to work grueling, unpredictable hours. This time of year, that reality is brought into sharp relief: the “holiday season,” with those “family obligations” and so forth, is something that occurs elsewhere.

But law firm billable expectations are not homogeneous. There are significant differences across practice areas, seniority levels, and, of course, individual firms. So how do the various practices, employment statuses, and firms stack up?

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Associates waste lots of time because senior lawyers are absolutely terrible managers. It’s not totally their fault. They think that a prestigious law degree means they’re an expert at everything. So armed with an irrelevant skill set, a complete lack of management training, and a hefty chunk of hubris, lawyers roll into personnel management sure that they know something by gut that business leaders endure hours and hours of MBA classes, Dale Carnegie seminars, and Six Sigma trainings to figure out.

Anyway, this leads to massive amounts of wasted time. The hours usually get (at least partially) billed and clients are savvy enough to know they deserve a write-off — but just how would they react if they knew exactly how their $500/hour was being spent?

Here are just a few tales of the wasted time billed to clients. Maybe you have some that top these?

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Do you really think you can bother this woman and not get cut?

* The trial of a Utah doctor accused of murdering his wife-to-be with a mistress 20 years his junior has kicked off a battle of medical experts trying to guide the jury through the competing theories about the cause of death. See, this was all easier when you could just introduce a new sister wife into the equation. [The Expert Institute]

* Is it acceptable to interrupt Justice Ginsburg’s dinner to show her something on your phone? [Slate (second item)]

* Case against Iowa law school for barring a student training a service dog will go forward. They should have just been happy it wasn’t a llama. [Des Moines Register]

* This week in clever footnoting: citing The Chairman of the Board in Footnote 2 (page 17). [U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit]

* Professor Eric Posner reviews Professor Rahul Sagar’s new book, Secrets and Leaks (affiliate link), which posits that people may be overreacting when they call for tearing down the NSA. [The New Republic]

* Jay Edelson and his associate Chandler Givens explain why the billable hour is the first thing that must go. Don’t they mean “Reason Number 1″ to reform the legal profession? [Reuters Legal Solutions]

* Judge Scheindlin is lawyering up, and Bloomberg looks at the various legal experts — including our own David Lat — who have spoken out about the case. Video embedded after the jump… [Bloomberg Law via You Tube]

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I’ve got better things to do than be in the office right now.

Last week we shared with you 7 Ways To Kill Time While Working At A Law Firm. It was a slightly tongue-in-cheek post, a subtle send-up of “listicles” like 10 Reasons To Leave Biglaw.

But as it turns out, as reflected in our traffic stats and in various messages sent directly to us, people actually want to learn about methods for staying (or looking) busy while they put in their law-firm face time. Does this mean work is slow? All these unused billable hours don’t bode well for bonus expectations this year.

Anyway, here you go: 7 more ways to kill time while working at a law firm….

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* Stop bullying the judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They don’t cave to just any government data request — they make changes to about 25 percent of them. But uh… they don’t like to talk about the other 75 percent. [Bloomberg]

* Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the number of Biglaw firms with failing grades for diversity. Hunton & Williams, Patton Boggs, and Thompson Coe are by far the worst offenders of all 19 large firms, with ZERO minority partners. [Texas Lawbook]

* A contract attorney is currently facing criminal charges for felony overbilling (which isn’t actually a real crime, but it’d be cooler if it was… plus it would make lots of lawyers from DLA Piper cry). [Radio Iowa]

* Well, at least one school got the message about the tuition being too damn high. Iowa Law is reducing tuition for out-of-state students by about $8K in the hopes of filling more seats. [Des Moines Register]

* Amanda Knox, more commonly known as Foxy Knoxy, says that she’s no “femme fatale,” but she’s being portrayed, again, as a “sex-obsessed she-devil” after already being acquitted of murder. [Reuters]

* Fashion designer Christian Louboutin was seeing red over the use of his trademark red soles in anti-Islam political messages, so he sued over it, and this time, he won. Rejoice, fashionistas! [New York Magazine]

Tied up in the office? You might as well make the most of it.

As the old saying goes, time is money. And in the land of law firms, where the billable hour is king, the saying is literally true. The pressure to churn that bill, baby rack up thousands and thousands of hours is one of the toughest aspects of legal practice. It drives lawyers towards drink and away from their families. (See reasons #7 and #8 of the 10 Reasons To Leave Biglaw.)

But what if you have the opposite problem? In some ways, not having enough in terms of billable hours is worse than having too much. If you’re billing, say, 75 hours a month as an associate, you could find yourself in the breadline before too long. (Partners have more leeway, but even they are hungry for hours nowadays.)

If you’re stuck in the office with nothing to do — and this applies not just to lawyers but to support staff, who are getting laid off partly because there’s not enough for them to do — how should you pass the hours? Here are seven suggestions….

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Scalia’s buddy?

* The Supreme Court’s Term opens today, and the conservative justices may have the opportunity to shift the law even further to the right when it comes to today’s social issues. [Los Angeles Times]

* In his Biglaw days, Chief Justice Roberts “gave his adversaries heartburn.” Now, his litigation skills serve the same purpose for those giving oral arguments before SCOTUS. [National Law Journal]

* It seems that in the end, Justice Ginsburg’s career choices have been whittled down to the lyrics found in one of The Clash’s catchiest songs: Should she stay or should she go now? [Washington Post]

* In other news, in case you were wondering, Justice Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in the Devil, is just as scary in real life as he is when he haunts your dreams (which is impressive!). [New York Magazine]

* “If this continues, it’s going to be very problematic.” Clients are very annoyed, and some Biglaw firms continue to worry about how the government shutdown will affect their bottom line. [New York Law Journal]

* The defections at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas: Weil Gotshal’s Houston office is still leaking partners like a sieve. We’ll have more on these developments later today. [Law360 (sub. req.)]

* President Obama continues to comment on the important issues of the day. He’d “think about changing” the Redskins team name if he were its owner — just like this fired Quinn Emanuel associate. [CNN]

* Viva la raza! The federal government is too slow for California, so the governor signed a bill into law that will allow illegal immigrants to become licensed as lawyers. Congratulations to Sergio Garcia. [Reuters]

* No, we won’t remove that embarrassing story we wrote about you — but at least we’re not trying to charge you hundreds of dollars for its removal like those pesky mug shot websites. [New York Times]

* According to Altman Weil, law firm merger mania is on pace for record highs as firms desperately attempt to stave off financial problems by gobbling up smaller firms’ clients. [Am Law Daily]

* The NCAA better watch its back: Jeffrey Kessler, the Winston & Strawn partner who helped bring free agency to the NFL, wants in on the potential case for unpaid college athletes. [Bloomberg]

* Lawyers doing regulatory work are very afraid that the shutdown will decimate their fourth quarter billables because “[t]he longer it goes, the more problematic it will be.” Yay government. [Reuters]

* GrayRobinson partner Philippe Devé is in need of a bone marrow transplant, and his firm is using its social media presence to crowdsource a donor. Will you lend a helping hand? [Daily Business Review]

* UpCounsel has successfully raised $1.5 million in funding to beef up its international patent practice, proving the point that it costs a pretty penny to protect clients from the world’s patent trolls. [TechCrunch]

* Law schools in New York State are feeling the pain of the drop in applications, and some are now willing admit that their graduates had to start “cannibalizing each other” in the job market. [New York Law Journal]

* But really, so what if applications are down? Lots of law schools consider themselves lucky to be keeping the lights on with the assistance of generous alumni donations in the millions. [National Law Journal]

* Another day, another “diploma mill.” Sorry to disappoint you, law students and alumni, but Charleston School of Law is moving forward with its plans to sell out to the InfiLaw System. [Post and Courier]

* Who’s bad? Not AEG Live. A jury made up of people unable to answer yes or no questions during the reading of the verdict found that the concert promoter wasn’t liable in Michael Jackson’s death. [CNN]

The glory days of 2006 and 2007 may never return. They call it the “new normal” for a reason.

But things at least can get better incrementally. And this is what might be happening in the in-house world, according to two new surveys. These studies report that in-house legal departments are increasing both their hiring and their spending — which could be good news for the law firms that service them, as well as all the Biglaw attorneys who dream of making the jump to in-house.

Don’t say that we never give you happy news around these parts….

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