As an associate at an international law firm, I quickly learned that my value to the firm was, at least partially, directly related to the number of hours I billed in a month. Associates, like myself, who consistently billed 2,100 hours or more received bonuses, raises, and positive annual reviews. Associates who failed to meet their hours, regardless of the quality of their work, did not receive bonuses, suffered pay cuts, and were the first to be let go when layoffs were required. After all, all associates are expected to produce quality work. However, if you aren’t billing enough hours then you aren’t earning your keep.
As I mentioned before, I never struggled to reach 2,100 hours a year. It may be surprising to some people to hear that I rarely came in before 9:00 a.m. and I rarely left much after 6:00 p.m. Typically, I only worked weekends when I was on business trips and before trials. I took yearly vacations and enjoyed holidays. Meanwhile, some of my fellow associates would get in at 8:00 a.m., stay until late in the evening, and come in regularly on weekends. Nonetheless, some of these same attorneys struggled to even reach 1,900 hours a year. Although there might be other factors at play, I attributed the difference in our billable hours to how well they captured the time they worked and/or office productivity. Here are a few of my tips for accomplishing more at the office:
Capture all of your billable work
One night, as I was heading home for the night, I visited one of my co-worker’s offices. I asked him if he wanted to grab a drink before heading home. He said he did, but that he needed to enter in his time for the day before we left. I can’t say if this was common behavior or if he’d simply been working on one long project all day. Nonetheless, it does illustrate one potential issue that some attorneys face when billing for their work. You should always bill contemporaneously as you complete your work.
In my opinion, the only way to accurately and ethically capture all of your work throughout the day is to enter your billing immediately after completing a task. Whenever possible, I billed every task that I performed immediately upon completing the work. The reasons I did this are twofold. First, from an ethical standpoint, this ensured that I was never in a position where I’d need to estimate the time I spent on a project. I have always taken my billing seriously and place a high value on accurately and fairly reporting my work to clients. Second, it also ensures that I maximized my billable hours. For example, if you fail to enter billing until later, you’ll probably miss lots of small but legitimate tasks. For example, small projects like drafting emails to opposing counsel, reading a letter you received in the mail related to a case, or speaking with a witness over the phone might seem insignificant in the short term, but they can really add up at the end of the year. And, of course, these small projects are incredibly easy to forget about if you don’t capture that time immediately after performing the work.
Stay focused when things are slow
Distractions are everywhere, even at the office. There is nothing wrong with popping into a colleagues office to socialize, browse Facebook for twenty minutes when you need a break, or stopping by the coffee shop to fuel up. Nonetheless, if you want to get in and out quickly, you need to keep distractions to a minimum. If you’re like me, this is pretty easy when you have a lot of work to do, but harder when things are a little slower. Nonetheless, if you want to bill a strong billable year without the stress, it’s especially important to stay focused when things are slower than normal.
I set an eight hour billable day as my minimum goal. If I had a slow day where I only billed 4 hours, for example, then that meant to me that I would have to bill a 12 hour day (or four 9 hour days) at some point in the year to make up for it. By keeping busy even when things were slow, it was easy to hit my minimum billable hour requirements. And, of course, there were sure to be enough busy periods throughout the year (because of trial, arbitration, extensive discovery, etc.) to help push my hours up and above the minimum and to make up for the time I’d lose because of vacations and holidays.
So is that it? Capture your time and don’t slack off? Yeah, but it’s easier said than done. For me, it required constant vigilance and attention to my work habits. Do you have any tips for associates who need to increase their billable hours? Let us know in the comments section.