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….
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….
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….
I wrote several weeks ago about why I should waste time — why I should attend some meetings at which I’m not really necessary. I should do this to learn what folks on my team are doing on a daily basis, to have a chance to work one-on-one with more people who ultimately report up to me, and to improve employee job satisfaction by having a manager show interest in employees’ work.
To my in-house eye, that’s not “wasted” time; it’s “invested” time — time that improves our collective well-being, even though it doesn’t result in my having completed a specific task that the organization needs accomplished.
As I think about it, I see an awful lot of these things in-house that I would never have seen at a law firm. For example, several weeks ago, we decided to invite a junior in-house lawyer to attend meetings of our “Corporate Ethics Committee,” at which a fairly senior group addresses, among other things, important issues that arise through our corporation’s anonymous ethics hotline. We didn’t invite the junior lawyer because his or her attendance was important to the committee’s deliberations; rather, we thought that attending the committee meetings would provide helpful training and give the junior lawyer more exposure to senior people in the department.
At a law firm, everyone would spit in your eye if you suggested that a junior person should unnecessarily attend a meeting simply for the sake of training and exposure: This would constitute either over-billing the client or wasting potentially billable hours. . . .
Partners versus associates in Biglaw. I am not referring to the annual end-of-summer softball game. This is more serious. Many groups are flat or slow. Even though associates leave firms and get replaced very slowly, or not at all, and even though incoming associate classes have shrunk, Biglaw firms make every effort to keep associates as busy as possible. For one, associates are expensive, with their high salaries and real benefits packages. Plus, it is always easy to generate some make-work for them, particularly when there are not as many around as there used to be.
These efforts are surely welcomed by associates, but at what cost to the firm’s other timekeeping employees — the partners? Does the fact that a partner “got elected,” has the title, signed a partnership agreement, and has money (either their own or a friendly bank’s) in the firm’s capital account mean that he or she should have first dibs on all available work? Put another way, do I have the right to insist that a fellow partner assign me work rather than an associate? Do I need to make sure my fellow partners are all fully busy before I assign some of my hard-earned client matters to them? Assuming that the clients do not care about who services a particular matter (e.g., it is a new client who only cares about the price and not who is providing the service), these are very difficult questions. Unfortunately for many in Biglaw today, they are also timely….
Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.
Jeffrey E. Stone is Co-Chair of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and Chair of the Firm’s Management Committee. In addition to his management roles, Jeffrey is a nationally recognized trial lawyer and a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He concentrates his practice in the areas of white-collar criminal defense, complex commercial litigation, internal investigations and RICO. He represents corporations, boards of directors, senior executives and other individuals in a variety of complex civil litigation and criminal prosecutions, involving a broad range of industries, including health care, manufacturing and financial services. He has tried more than 40 cases to verdict before juries in federal and state court.
Jeffrey has served as National Chairman of the Stanford Fund (responsible for all annual giving to Stanford University), as a National Trustee for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as outside counsel to the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, as a board member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and as president of the Jewish Family and Community Services agency. He currently serves as a member of the national Board of Governors for the American Jewish Committee.
1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?
Is the slowdown in Biglaw that we’ve seen since the Great Recession a long-term trend or just a temporary blip? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the debate rages on. (The latest salvo: New Republic editor Noam Scheiber’s response to critics of his controversial article, The Last Days of Big Law.)
Because of its power, prestige, and profitability, Biglaw gets a big proportion of the media coverage that’s aimed at law firms. But let’s not overlook small firms and solo practitioners, who make up about 70 percent of American lawyers in private practice.
One often hears stories about small firms, especially boutiques formed by ex-Biglaw attorneys, that are thriving. The tales are inspiring; the small-firm lawyers talk about how they enjoy their practice more, have greater autonomy, and make the same or even more money than they did back in Biglaw.
But such information is anecdotal. How are small law firms doing compared to bigger firms on a broader level? A new survey has some answers….
By the time I graduated from law school in 1999, I had become rather risk-averse. For example, several of my friends were excited to enter the dot.com world with hopes of becoming uber-wealthy. I eschewed those prospects for the security of a more regular, albeit more modest, Biglaw paycheck. Eighty thousand per year struck me then (and now) as a generous starting salary.
Of course, forming and managing a new law firm is a risky business proposition. But to the extent that I now am fully responsible for generating my own work, I feel like I actually have greater job security than I did when I was beholden to working for other rainmakers on their cases. So even though starting a firm was risky, it didn’t really portend a fundamental shift in my natural inclination to prefer security over risks even if that means foregoing potentially bigger gains.
In fairness to DLA Piper, the craziness might not be that high on a per capita basis. DLA Piper is one of the largest law firms in the world. In the most recent Global 100 rankings, DLA took second place in both total revenue and attorney headcount.
Many of the DLA Piper stories are on the lighter side. But this latest one — involving serious allegations of overbilling, apparently supported by internal DLA emails saying things like “churn that bill, baby!” — is no laughing matter….
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When Chintan Panchal decided to leave a global BigLaw partnership to start his own firm, he could only hope that he would face the high-quality problem of firm building that many had cautioned him about. Focused on the uncertainty surrounding of a new firm launch, he decided to tackle staffing needs, IT challenges, and financial planning requirements after he had built up his legal practice.
Panchal Associates LLP–a corporate/finance and outside general counsel boutique–was quickly off to a great start. Clients and matters were flying in the door, and Chintan soon had a team of lawyers and staff with a variety of operational needs. To continue building an excellent team and provide them with a competitive benefits package, to expand his physical presence to include a European practice and additional partners, and to scale his operations and IT capabilities to support this growing enterprise brought with it demands of time, money, and expertise. Chintan knew he needed help.
“With the assistance of NexFirm, we have upgraded the capabilities of our firm to meet, and in some cases exceed, the standards we were used to at our former BigLaw firms. Operationally, we can now attract and service clients we didn’t have the bandwidth to support in the past, and continue to build our team with the best and brightest legal talent in the industry,” said Chintan Panchal, adding “It has worked out quite well in our case; NexFirm is an essential partner for us.”
The holiday season is upon us, and yet again, you have no idea what to get for the fickle lawyer in your life. We’re here to help. Even if your bonus check hasn’t arrived yet, any one of the gifts we’ve highlighted here could be a worthy substitute until your employer decides to make it rain.
We’ve got an eclectic selection for you to choose from, so settle in by that stack of documents yet to be reviewed and dig in…
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