Billable Hours

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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We’re still catching up on bonus news that broke over the holidays. Remember, if we missed your firm, please let us know at tips@abovethelaw.com.

Just after Christmas, Dechert announced its 2011 end-of-year bonuses. I guess you’d call it a “match” of the Cleary Gottlieb scale. Dechert is paying a pro-rated bonus to first-year associates and has a top payment of $42,500 for very senior associates.

But Dechert isn’t a lockstep firm. You have to meet a requirement in order to get the bonus. That requirement looks very much like an hours requirement, but Dechert doesn’t want you (or its clients) to think that they have an hours requirement — so they have some kind of nebulous performance requirement that can most easily be defined with reference to hours.

Oh, and they’ll dock you if you didn’t input your time, on time, throughout the year….

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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Tom Wallerstein

Recently, someone remarked to me that the week after Christmas is a “dead week.” He meant that many people take the week off, many companies are short staffed, and business generally is light.

When I was in Biglaw, I always worked the week after Christmas. Even though most partners wouldn’t be around, I figured that left it up to me to make sure my cases were being handled properly. With hindsight, I know that I probably wasn’t quite as essential as I thought, but that was my attitude at the time.

Now that I am a partner in my own firm, you might think that I can finally relax and let my associates mind the store. Negative. First, I care about my associates’ quality of (work) life. Having spent years in Biglaw, I am committed to trying to lessen at least some of the unpleasantness that often entails. So I want my employees to be able to take time off, or at least work a lighter schedule, during a week that is traditionally light. Second, running my own firm just raises the stakes. Now I really do have ultimate responsibility for all my cases, so I feel even more pressure to work harder and better than ever before.

So much for a dead week. Still, the comment got me thinking about what it means to be “swamped” with work versus having a “dead week,” and how those concepts differ when applied to Biglaw versus a running a solo or small firm practice….

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Edward Hayes (on The Charlie Rose Show)

What draws people to the practice of law? Some do it for the paycheck, some do it for the prestige, and some do it for the excitement and fun of it all.

Veteran New York litigator Edward Hayes belongs firmly in the final camp. Although he has amassed fame and fortune over almost four decades of practicing law, his legal career reflects a quest for adventure.

And what adventures Hayes has had. After graduating from the University of Virginia and Columbia Law School, he joined the Bronx District Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted homicides (which there was no shortage of in the Bronx in the 1970s). He then launched his own practice, handling civil and criminal matters for such clients as the estate of Andy Warhol, notorious “Mafia cop” Stephen Caracappa, acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, actor Robert De Niro, celebrity editrices Anna Wintour and Tina Brown, billionaire publisher Si Newhouse, and then-paramours Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez (after they were arrested together back in 1999).

Eddie Hayes has even found his way into literature. He served as the basis for Tommy Killian, Sherman McCoy’s defense lawyer in Tom Wolfe’s great novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe dedicated the book to Hayes, a close friend of his for many years.

This past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of spending a day with Ed Hayes. We met up at Penn Station and took the train out to his vacation home in Bellport, Long Island, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, dining outdoors and overlooking the water. (There are Lawyerly Lairs-style photos of his house, after the jump.)

During our time together, Hayes reminisced about his extraordinary life in the law, offered career advice for fellow lawyers, and showed me how to properly prepare a caprese salad….

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It seems that founding partner John Quinn isn’t the only one at Quinn Emanuel with a surplus of Benjamins right about now. On Friday, the litigation powerhouse announced its 2011 year-end bonus scale — and, for the most part, it’s more generous than the benchmark Cravath bonus scale.

We say “for the most part” because, for associates billing under 2100 hours, the scale is below Cravath — but just slightly. And it’s our understanding that not many QE associates bill less than 2100 hours anyway.

Let’s take a look at the details….

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Years ago, I handled a pro bono case for a client unable to afford legal services. (I actually handled a fair number of pro bono cases, but I’m choosing to describe just one here.) The client was a very nice guy, and he desperately needed legal services. But he had no idea how to use a lawyer cost-effectively and, because he wasn’t paying for my services, he had no incentive to restrain himself. The guy called incessantly, asked endless questions, and was always trying to schedule meetings with me. I mentioned the situation to one of my senior colleagues, and the colleague’s reaction was immediate: “What that client needs is a bill.”

During the decades when I served as outside counsel representing clients, I noticed that some of my clients permitted me to do their work efficiently and others affirmatively obstructed that effort. Now that I’m an in-house lawyer, I’m thinking about the other side of that coin: What should I, in my role as client, do to permit outside counsel to represent me efficiently?

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Here’s a puzzle for you. What decade am I discussing in the following paragraphs?

I’m doing something a little different here. The entire text of this column appears before the jump. I’ve hidden only the citations after the jump. Ponder while you read these paragraphs when the source materials supporting these words were written:

The excessive cost of legal services is not a function of the economy that will abate as the recession finally fades. In the words of one recent report, “Don’t fool yourselves that when the recession passes things will return to normal.” That report quoted the general counsel of a major financial institution as saying, “The way we are now is the way it is now, not a temporary situation . . . . [I]n the [decade omitted] we’re going to see straight hourly billing die.”

Surveys confirm the concerns about the high cost of legal services. For example, in a [year omitted] general counsel survey conducted by [the firm you know as PriceWaterhouseCoopers], a majority of the 350 respondents agreed that “legal fees have gotten out of control and are crippling businesses,” and pressure to reduce costs was a “major theme” of the survey responses. Surveys of corporate law departments conducted by Endispute, Inc. in [two years omitted] reveal that a third of the respondents faced actual cuts in their legal budgets and that, as the size of the legal departments increased, so too did the pressure to reduce legal costs. A [year omitted] Louis Harris survey of executives and legal officers of Fortune 500 service corporations reveals cost containment as a top priority for law departments, and a survey of major corporate clients in the United Kingdom demonstrates that this is now a worldwide issue.

The pressure to move away from standard billing, based on the billable hour, is likely to increase. Indeed, [name omitted], the recently appointed general counsel of [company name omitted], is leading an intense campaign to adopt alternative billing mechanisms. Her efforts have been broadly publicized and resulted in a highly visible panel at the [year omitted] ABA meeting.

In what years did these things occur? What decade are we discussing? And who the heck was the recently appointed general counsel of what company? Those citations and more after the jump….

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Are your in-house working hours recently rivaling the billable hours you thought you had permanently discarded? Is your workload getting way too heavy — i.e., it’s really getting difficult to watch Glee on a timely basis? Do you find yourself working on pretty much the same form of contract over and over and over and over and over and over and over, ad infinitum?

It may be time to take a break and evaluate the problem of Low-Value Work.

What’s Low-Value Work? It’s work that has three main characteristics….

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