Time keeping

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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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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At large law firms around the country, associates and counsel are eagerly awaiting their bonuses. But partners and chief financial officers have their minds on other things: namely, collections. The fourth quarter is when firms step up their efforts at shaking down clients for cash.

As we all know from the law-and-economics reasoning that was taught to us in law school, people — yes, this includes lawyers — respond to incentives. At one leading law firm, bonus anxiety is being shrewdly harnessed in service of collections efforts.

CHECK YOU TIME SHEETS….

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I find it funny that firms that want to skimp on bonuses also expect associates to make sure they are helping the overall health and performance of the firm. At some level, why should associates care if the firm is up to date on its collections? It’s not like that money is going to trickle down to the time keepers once their hours are realized. Hell, we’ve got people in the comments claiming they are going to purposely underbill in order to hurt firms in 2011 for stinginess in 2010.

The firms aren’t wrong to be doing everything they can to get associates to enter in their hours in a timely fashion. Time keeping is more accurate when you do it every day (as opposed to trying to recreate your days at the end of the week or month). Firms are struggling to collect from their clients. And, for what it’s worth, billing hours is part of the job for attorneys. I just find it ironic that firms are trying to pressure their associates to produce more money for them even as they are sharing a smaller percentage of those profits with associates.

It’s pretty clear that being a part of a Biglaw firm isn’t a “team” proposition. Everybody for themselves; that’s how the partners act, and that’s how partners expect associates to act.

And so Hughes Hubbard is bringing a little personal punishment to associates who are late with their time…

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Nothing says “Biglaw” quite like an old-fashioned partner threat. Biglaw partners, a self-important bunch if there ever was one, generally do little to mask their huge egos. But when those egos express themselves in the form of threats against underlings, well, that’s when you learn why people get paid $160,000 right out of school.

You see, in most situations you just can’t treat highly educated people like naughty schoolchildren and expect them to take it. Not if you are paying them $50,000 a year for some average, middle-class lifestyle. They’ll quit. They’ll tell you to take your BS job and shove it down your condescending throat. But when you pay people $160,000 (or more), then you can talk to them however you please. They’ll take it (and apparently thank you for it). Biglaw partners know that their associates are being paid more money than they can make nearly anywhere else, and so they have little incentive to consider how they speak to their associate colleagues.

Now most partners threaten or belittle people on an individual, face-to-face basis. But sometimes these communications are disseminated to a broader group, and on the rarest of occasions these partner meltdowns are captured over email and sent to Above the Law. And those are the best.

Yes, Steven Pesner of Akin Gump, we’re about to make you a star….

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If you talk to law firm partners who are in charge of collecting fees, they’ll tell you that getting clients to pay has become a real hassle ever since the recession started. Clients are trying to make their books look as palatable as possible, and if that means avoiding or delaying payments to their lawyers, well, then that’s what they are going to do. Collecting fees from clients is one of the top concerns of Biglaw managers.

And it should be a top concern for Biglaw associates. Nobody is going to be getting a bonus when the firm cannot realize its profits.

You’d think every practicing attorney would be on the same page with this by now. You’d think, at the very least, every person would be diligently putting in their time to give their firm the maximum opportunity to collect on their billable hours. But apparently some people haven’t gotten the memo that putting in your hours in a timely fashion is critical in this environment.

Well, at Simpson Thacher, they want to know your hours, now. And the firm is threatening to bring the hammer down on attorney timekeepers who are putting off this important paper work. Put in your hours, or STB will hit you where it hurts — the wallet…

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