Timekeeping

During a time when demand for legal services is flat, average revenue per lawyer is down, and managing partners’ overall confidence in the market is slipping, the proper keeping of time for all of those billable hours generated by toiling associates has never been more important. For better or worse, law firms are desperately trying to incentivize associates to submit their hours on time.

As we mentioned way back in 2010, “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.”

Another part of an attorney’s job is the ability to follow rules. One Biglaw firm just rolled out a new time entry policy, and if its associates don’t follow these rules, they can expect some pretty negative consequences when bonus season comes around…

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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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Associates waste lots of time because senior lawyers are absolutely terrible managers. It’s not totally their fault. They think that a prestigious law degree means they’re an expert at everything. So armed with an irrelevant skill set, a complete lack of management training, and a hefty chunk of hubris, lawyers roll into personnel management sure that they know something by gut that business leaders endure hours and hours of MBA classes, Dale Carnegie seminars, and Six Sigma trainings to figure out.

Anyway, this leads to massive amounts of wasted time. The hours usually get (at least partially) billed and clients are savvy enough to know they deserve a write-off — but just how would they react if they knew exactly how their $500/hour was being spent?

Here are just a few tales of the wasted time billed to clients. Maybe you have some that top these?

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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.

Gary Luftspring, managing partner at Ricketts, Harris LLP, enjoys a high-level litigation practice. He’s successfully represented clients in a significant and growing number of major cases and was named by Lexpert as a litigator who is “consistently recommended.” Read his full bio here.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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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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Mastering assignments begins with understanding what the lawyers you are working for want. You are not in law school; this is not a contest where you are graded against other students. Clients want answers, not issue spotting. Sophisticated clients already know the issues. Clients want answers based on the facts and applicable law — not theory based on policy arguments, law review articles, cases from other states, dissenting opinions, or model statutes that have not been adopted.

According to Lateral Link’s Frank Kimball, an expert recruiter and former Biglaw hiring partner, the most frequent problems in summer programs arise from misunderstood assignments. Common errors include spending the wrong amount of time on a project, delivering the wrong type of work product, memoranda that speak with the voice of a law student rather than that of a lawyer, and inadequate or excessive legal research. Each is preventable.

If you do not enjoy research, call that truck driving school. If you do not have a natural curiosity about legal issues, you are in the wrong profession. That means a rigorous, disciplined approach to defining problems and finding answers even if it means going through scores of cases, stacks of treatises, and hitting innumerable dead ends until you are satisfied.

Know that your assignment will be delivered by an attorney responsible for coordinating projects for summer associates or the attorney for whom the work will be done. Therefore, do not leave the office of the assigning lawyer without answers to these eleven questions — which you can read by clicking here. Don’t forget, for additional career insights as well as profiles of individual law firms, check out the Career Center.

I’ve received a couple of e-mails from associates at large firms saying that these folks sit at their desks dreaming about having in-house jobs: One client instead of many competing for your time. More manageable workload. A broader range of work. Less stress. An opportunity to think strategically instead of wallowing in minutiae. No more billable hours. No more time sheets. Bliss!

Please, these correspondents ask, write a column explaining the tribulations of in-house counsel.

This is tricky. First, the in-house life is pretty good. I wouldn’t want to understate the advantages. Second, I don’t hide behind a cloak of anonymity when I publish these columns. If I faced any tribulations (and I don’t, of course), this wouldn’t be a wise forum in which to let loose. Third, my own personal experience doesn’t prove very much generally, and I hear a wide range of varied reactions from others who work in-house.

But I’ll give it a shot….

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What did you do yesterday? I’m assuming you went to work. Did you put in a full day? Great. Let’s assume you got started around 9:00, took about an hour for lunch, and signed off at 7:00. Maybe for you that’s a light day, or maybe that’s a long day. Doesn’t matter. So that means you worked nine hours. OK.

Let’s further assume that you frittered away an hour, mostly spent reading Above the Law or wondering why they’re still playing hockey in the summertime (I’d make a Bruins reference here, but it would be strictly from the bandwagon). So that leaves eight hours of bona fide work. Eighty point-ones. Four hundred eighty minutes.

Now look over your timesheet from yesterday, and think about how you spent those 480 minutes. Were they all the same? Were they all of equal value to solving your clients’ problems?

Of course not. But if your minutes aren’t all the same, why are you counting them as being the same? What are the real reasons that lawyers track their time?

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