Hourly Billing

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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‘Gee, my life is so meaningful. Thanks a lot, law school!’

* Despite the fact that the overall demand for legal work was down by five percent during the first nine months of the year, law firms still raised their hourly rates. Hey, what can we say? Math is hard. [Am Law Daily]

* After instructing his lawyers not to speak during what he called a “sham sentencing,” Whitey Bulger received two life sentences plus five years. Don’t worry, the appeal won’t be a sham. [National Law Journal; CNN]

* Attention c/o 2015: the New York City Bar Task Force is considering throwing commercial paper out the window in favor of administrative law. Something something arbitrary and capricious. [New York Law Journal]

* What is law school for, aside from collecting gigantic mountains of non-dischargeable student loan debt? Apparently it’s for creating a more meaningful life, because with poverty comes clarity. [WSJ Law Blog]

* In the very near future, you might need a license to conduct business with virtual money like bitcoin. The Brothers Winklevii are probably already preparing their paperwork to file. [DealBook / New York Times]

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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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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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. . . .

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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….

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I recently heard the managing partner of a regional law firm say that alternative fee arrangements are like teenage sex: “More of it is being talked about than is actually being done, and the little that’s being done is being done poorly.”

My corporation now uses alternative fee agreements for a large percentage of its work. All of those arrangements have worked out acceptably, and one (which I’ll discuss after the jump) has played out spectacularly. The harder question is this: How does one convince tens of thousands of readers to click through the jump (and “continue reading”) a column about alternative fee arrangements (because clicks through the jump are, after all, the relevant metric to the Above the Law gang)?

I’ve got it! Gin up a riddle, and put the question before the jump and the punch line after. What reader could resist?

So — riddle me this:

What’s the similarity between discussions about alternative fee agreements and elephantine mating?

Both take place on a high level, involve much trumpeting, . . .

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Tom Wallerstein

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.

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[Think of hourly fees] as the equivalent of a sticker on the car at a dealership. It’s the beginning of a negotiation…. Law firms think they are setting the rates, but clients are the ones determining what they’re going to pay.

Ward Bower, a principal at the legal consultancy Altman Weil, commenting on the ever-growing price tag for the Biglaw billable hour — and the deep discounts that are available to clients who simply refuse to pay full freight.

Over the last three weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, here, and below. As with the three prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues….

AP: Any serious observer of Biglaw can see that firms continue to struggle adapting associate development to the new state of Biglaw-client relations. What can Biglaw learn from corporate clients like yourself on that front?

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