Billable Hour

Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

Labor Day weekend is here. So let’s talk about… labor! In the Biglaw salt mines.

In response to our earlier Flashback Friday posts about associate compensation in the 1990s, we received a few requests for information about billable hours back then. People wanted to know how hard associates had to work back in the day for that $83,000 starting salary.

It’s a good question. You hear anecdotal evidence going in both directions. Sometimes people who have been in the profession for a long time talk about how hard they had to work before technology made things so much easier, recalling the bad old days of never-ending, hard-copy due diligence or document review. On other occasions, though, old timers reminisce about the good old ways when law was more of a profession and less of a business; sure, lawyers earned less, but they had lives — or , at least, better work-life balance.

Which picture holds more truth? Here’s some data….

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For months, we talked to counsel about our prospects in the case. He was sanguine:

“There’s nothing to worry about here. The plaintiff put a huge number in its prayer for relief, but you can’t possibly lose that much. Plaintiff’s liability case is thin, and the damages are inflated. You’ll probably win. If you lose, you’d lose no more than $1 million on an average day. On the worst day known to man, you can’t even theoretically lose more than $5 million. I wouldn’t offer more than a couple hundred grand to settle.”

A few months before trial, we ask counsel to put some skin in the game: “It’ll be expensive to try this case, and you feel good about our prospects. We’d like you to propose an alternative fee agreement that aligns your interests with ours. We’d like to pay you less than your ordinary hourly rates in the months leading up to trial, but we’ll give you a success fee if we win. Please think about it, and let us know if you have any ideas.”

A couple of weeks pass, as counsel discusses the case with his firm’s “senior management.” When the alternative fee proposal arrives, the goalposts have miraculously moved! In the course of just two uneventful weeks, our prospects for success have changed entirely!

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A full house for last week’s in-house counsel panel at Betterment.

Last week, Betterment and Above the Law hosted a great panel discussion about working as an in-house lawyer at a relatively young company. The event, hosted at Betterment’s spacious and airy offices in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood, drew a standing-room-only crowd of around 200 people.

How can you get a job as an in-house lawyer for a startup? And what’s life like once you’re there?

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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?

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As we noted in Morning Docket, there’s a new survey out about corporate America’s legal spending in 2013. As noted by Am Law Daily, the LegalView Index “is based on actual dollars paid by clients, not on surveys of law firms” — so perhaps it’s more reliable than many of the other studies.

What does the survey say? Here are some highlights:

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When we recently ranked top law firms based on responses to the ATL Insider Survey, readers raved about Wilson Sonsini, which took the #5 spot on our list of the top 12 firms. According to one respondent, the firm boasts “entrepreneurial meritocracy, the best client base, endless opportunities, and smart helpful people. It is a unique place, perfect for the self-motivated overachiever.”

In terms of the five specific survey metrics, Wilson fared best in the compensation department. On a 10-point scale, WSGR scored an impressive 8.73 (out of 10) in terms of satisfaction with pay. (The firm’s other scores: 8.63 for culture, 8.33 for training, 7.80 for morale, and 7.33 for hours.)

But will Wilson Sonsini be able to maintain its high score on the comp front? Not everyone is happy with the firm’s latest bonuses….

(Please note the multiple UPDATES added to the end of this post.)

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Congratulations to the Latham & Watkins lawyers who participated in Movember. In November 2013, Team Latham raised more than $7,000 to fight testicular and prostate cancer. Movember might have hurt Procter & Gamble’s bottom line, but it helped raise awareness of important issues in men’s health.

And congrats to Latham lawyers on their 2013 bonuses. The bonuses were announced last Friday and will be paid this Friday.

(Yes, law firm season rolls on, even though it’s past its peak. We’re working on a few bonus stories but need additional data points on some firms — e.g., WilmerHale. If you can help us out, please email us or text us: 646-820-8477.)

If you want to see a bunch of Latham lawyers sporting facial here, click here. If you want information about Latham bonuses, including but not limited to the firm’s bonus memo, keep reading….

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When it comes to law firm bonus news, there’s no such thing as “too late.” Heck, we covered Wachtell Lipton’s bonuses for 2011 and 2012 just last week.

If you have Biglaw bonus news that we have not yet covered, please email us or text us (646-820-8477). We’re always happy to hear from you.

Last month, Dechert announced the price it pays for associate talent. Let’s travel down this bonus road, shall we?

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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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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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