Billable Hours

I hate to invoke a cliché, but “David versus Goliath” captures the challenge a smaller firm faces when litigating against an Am Law 200 firm. A small firm can feel like David when facing a larger firm that can bring more resources to bear on legal research, drafting motions, reviewing documents, etc.

The challenge increases when applied to clients. Many of my firm’s initial clients were startups or emerging companies with limited litigation budgets. Their adversaries often were much larger, established companies with seemingly unlimited budgets. Thus, we faced not only the challenge of litigating against brand-name firms with hundreds of attorneys, but we also initially had clients who simply could not afford to spend as much in legal fees as their well-heeled opponents.

So how can a small firm, especially representing a smaller company, effectively litigate against a proverbial army of lawyers representing a client to whom money is no object?

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Everybody on the whole cell block…

* Now prison inmates will literally be able to listen to the jailhouse rock. Dancing to it is a different issue. [USA Today]

* Why do students surf the web in class instead of taking notes? Probably because their professors are boring. [Legal Skills Prof Blog]

* The current Supreme Court justices have less time practicing law or working in politics than any other previous Supreme Court roster. But they have way more pillow fights. [Social Science Research Network via Instapundit]

* The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana emailed some friends a fairly offensive, racially charged joke about President Obama from his courthouse chambers. He will probably have to apologize. [Great Falls Tribune]

* “It’s like having a pace runner in a marathon: I don’t have to burn out running the 26.2 miles as fast as I can.” The only difference is that this new tool measures billable hours instead of miles. [ABA Journal]

I won’t say whether I actually heard these conversations or I just dreamt them.

First: The head of the business unit confronted with a new litigation matter:

“This is an outrage! How could they have accused us of this? We want to fight! Fight! Fight!”

“The defense costs will be charged to your business unit, which will reduce your bonus pool.”

“Settle!”

Second: One partner at a law firm — who wants to visit a client, make a presentation, and take the client to dinner — to a second partner — who is the relationship lawyer for the client:

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Not to be all on Catherine Rampell’s jock today, but the other thing I read in the Economix while I was catching up on the internet seemed far more interesting than imagining Shearman & Sterling partners bitch about how flat profits per partner left them with only $1.56 million, on average, to play around with in 2011.

On the one hand, it’s an obvious point: a study about the most “sleep-deprived” professions found lawyers to average only 7 hours of sleep a night. Only “home health aides” received less sleep.

It doesn’t come as a galloping shock to anybody that lawyers average less sleep than almost anybody else. What did surprise me was the figure. What the hell kind of lazy lawyer is getting seven entire hours of sleep every day?

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For attorneys who bill by the hour, one of the less enjoyable aspects of the job is recording time. For many associates, entering time is a necessary evil done only under coercion. The process also can be fraught with pressure. Associates know that all too often their worth might be measured by their billable hours.

Of course, for big and small firms alike, we tolerate the timesheets because they are our firms’ lifeblood. Recording our time enables our firms to generate their invoices. The inherent purpose of entering our time is to generate this request for payment.

But an invoice can and should do much more, especially for a small firm or solo practice….

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We tend to think of the biggest Biglaw firms as “sweatshops,” while we view small firms, midsize or regional firms, or even Am Law 200 firms as “lifestyle” shops. The thought is that the big bad firms that service Wall Street clients will grind you up and spit you out, while somewhat smaller firms will allow you to have a normal life as you pursue your career.

It’s a great story, but it’s not necessarily a true one. Sometimes working at a smaller firm or a regional firm just means the same work with more pressure and less pay. Attorneys at such firms, whether partners or associates, don’t always have the kind of resources that Biglaw attorneys enjoy. There aren’t multiple layers of staffing available to double- or triple-check every document. It’s a lot of stress.

And stress can be just as deleterious to your health when working at a regional firm as it is when you work for a truly huge firm. This week, we’ve been fielding a bunch of reports about an associate who passed away at home after working what some tipsters report as maniac hours at his regional law firm the week before.

It’s a sad story, one that some accuse the law firm of trying to cover up, but it’s another opportunity for us to remind readers to take care of themselves even when work seems overwhelming…

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On Monday, as the world was learning about Justice Stephen Breyer getting robbed at machete-point, fellow Justice Antonin Scalia was getting cozy in the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago Law School.

A few years ago, Scalia criticized the law school’s political drift to the left. But just before Valentine’s Day, they kissed and made up. On Monday, Scalia gave a speech at U. Chicago, where he used to teach (and served as faculty advisor to the Federalist Society). He also offered some, how shall we say, unexpected career advice for attorneys who are just starting out….

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Hands off the dancers, sir.

Our latest Biglaw blind item concerns the sighting of a partner at a strip club.

Right now you’re probably thinking: yawn. A law firm partner at a strip club? As they say, it happens every day (or night — and often gets billed to “business development”).

But there are a few more details that make this item noteworthy….

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Tomorrow, associates at Goodwin Procter will receive individualized news of their bonuses. You may recall that last month, when ATL’s new director of research, Brian Dalton, compiled a list of Biglaw’s ten most generous firms — i.e., the ten firms that pay the best bonuses, when measured against their profits per partner — Goodwin did good, winning fourth place. (The firm fares well in rankings; last month, it made Crain’s list of best places to work in New York.)

Will this year’s bonuses preserve Goodwin’s good standing? Let’s find out. Although the individual amounts are being communicated tomorrow, the firm has outlined its overall approach in a memo….

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The other day, I was at dinner with some Biglaw friends. While I prefer to associate only with my small-firm kin, I needed someone to pick up the check. And, I thought I could do some missionary work and convert my friends in to small-firm lawyers (so I could mine them for story ideas, obviously).

Something unexpected happened during dinner. One of my friends asked me why I believe small-firm life is so different from Biglaw. I went through my standard list of reasons: quality of life, money, autonomy, mentoring, etc. I even cited Tom Wallerstein’s Top Ten.

That was where things took an unexpected turn: my friend did not buy it. Indeed, by the end of our dinner he had me questioning my beliefs. Does size matter, I thought? Needless to say, as a woman who has devoted her “career” to writing about small-firm life, this experience shook me to my core.

Let’s see if you can help me make sense of that night….

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