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Bill like a super star associate - ThinkstockPhotos-181142631-crop-l-c.jpg

Bill like a super star associate

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.

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9 Comments

  1. jacob says:

    When you come in at 9 and leave at 6, you essentially have an 8 hour day (1 hour lunch assumed). So, even without the long lunch, you bill at 80-100% efficiency. Perhaps the ones who work harder and bill lower are actually the associates who are billing fairly. Or maybe, like you stated, they just come in early and leave late but chat all day.. Unlikely. I’ve seen people billings 14 hours in a day and calling it “value billing…”

    • Matthew Hickey says:

      Hi Jacob,

      I don’t appreciate the fact that you are implying that I wasn’t billing fairly. I’ve never engaged in what you are describing as “value billing.” However, I did average close to 40 hours a week in billings by working hard while I was in the office and by being thoughtful about the time I spent not working. I’d rarely take a one hour lunch unless I was meeting with a client or engaging in a team lunch (I preferred to eat lunch at my desk to save time). By simply capturing all of the time I spent actually working I could get pretty close to 40 hours a week most weeks which would get me close to (but not quite) 2100 hours. Admittedly, once you factor in vacations and holidays I’d be back under 2,000 hours. However, like most attorneys, I had to work sometimes in excess of 60-80+ hours a week at least 4-5 times a year. I think this is unavoidable for most attorneys. In my experience, many big trials make a 40 hour week impossible. Those weeks, which were still relatively rare, would more than make up for the occasional 35 hour billable week, holiday or vacation. The point of the article isn’t that you should never have to work long hours as an attorney, but that you shouldn’t have to work 12 hour days every week in order to achieve 8 billable hours.

      • Jacob says:

        Okay, maybe you’re just the most efficient associate on the block. I bill at an efficient rate ( Or so I thought) and still only manage about 37-40 hours per week. And that includes billing for all sorts of tedium and using a standard .4 per page for all formal correspondence.

        Didn’t mean to imply that you were unfair, just that its much harder to bill at 80-100% without burning out and current billing practices make bill padding all to much of a reality.

        • Fran says:

          Standard “.4” for correspondence? I wish I could bill that to clients, I’d be writing letters all day long and go home early!

  2. Andy says:

    Matt,

    As a new associate who just completed my stub year, this was a helpful read. Billing hours is a foreign concept to most people, and is most definitely a learned skill. So far in my stub year, I find myself spending lots of time in the office, but I still come up far short of my required hours. I struggle to accurately capture the work I’m doing.

    No doubt some of this is due to reasons you highlight in the article. However, I believe another area where many young attorneys struggle involves deciding *what* time to bill and *how* to bill it. Let me give you a hypothetical that illustrates this problem:

    Example: New attorney gets an assignment from Partner (3-5 minutes). New attorney then reviews client emails forwarded by partner (7-8 minutes). New attorney looks up some old documents on firm’s intranet to get an idea of what he’s doing (10 minutes). New attorney beings drafting document/reviewing document (32 minutes). New attorney goes to Associate to ask brief questions about assignment (5 minutes). New attorney makes revisions based on conversation with Associate (7 minutes). New attorney prints and reviews the documents (5 minutes). New attorney makes small edits based on review (2 minutes). New attorney drafts email to Partner with assignment attached (3 minutes).

    This hypothetical illustrates several different issues that come up in day-to-day billing decisions — what are billable vs non-billable activities? should I block bill or bill for individual tasks? which tasks are sufficiently different from other tasks that they should have their own billing entry?

    I’d like to focus mainly on this last question — when do you bill separate entries versus when do you roll all of the time spent on a task together? Obviously, billing things as separate entries will give you many more billable hours. Take my hypothetical: if all of that time spent is considered billable (I’m not sure it is), and you roll that time together and just say “Draft document X for client,” you would bill a 1.3 (77 minutes). Conversely, if all of that time is considered billable, but you break each one out as a separate task, then you would bill a 1.7.

    This is something I struggle with everyday, and I don’t feel like I’ve ever received a bright-line rule from a partner at my firm. Perhaps there is no such rule. Maybe I need to exercise better judgment. But my gut reaction — a very natural reaction, I think — is to feel like I’m nickel-and-diming clients if I bill all of those things out as separate tasks.

    Your thoughts on best billing practices would be appreciated.

  3. Preston says:

    Also, at the firm I work at it states in the retainer agreement that any work will be a minimum of 0.2 minimum hours billing. So any quick phone call (calls are on average 3-5 minutes) counts as 12 minutes. This way I can sometimes bill almost an extra 2 hours on days where I perform countless small tasks on different files.

  4. Anna Lena says:

    Thank you for your article.
    I am not a lawyer and have been trying to wrap my head around this system. In theory it seems simple enough, but the one point that I don’t get is what happens if you work slower? What if you just take longer for each task than the average lawyer? For me this would be where the system must fail or is there some way this is handled? Because so far it seems that slower lawyers may have the same amount or even more billable hours as a normal or a fast lawyer but have actually gotten less done.
    I would really appreciate if you could enlighten me on how this billable hour system treats slow lawyers.

  5. Anna Lena says:

    What happens with a lawyer who is just slower than others? As far as I understand he or she would just bill more hours because it takes him or her longer to finish the tasks, right?

  6. Pete says:

    Typically, at least in my firm, the slower the attorney the less their billable rate. If I can accomplish a task in 1 hour that takes my partner .5 she would bill at twice my rate. Not sure if that is how other firms work, but that is how are firm works.

    In addition, I had a question for the author. You seem an efficient litigator, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on planners or transactional attorneys. In my situation projects have strict limits and some of the partners have the idea that a project will take 5 hours but in fact it takes 15 which they cannot then bill for because they set the clients expectations too low. I can bill the 15 but at the risk of not getting as much work from that parter in the future, or looking like I’m incredibly slow, which I may believe, except that other partners have told me how fast I am at what I do, so its just a difference in expectations.

    I suppose this is just an issue I have had recently, and in my office people believe planners can only bill around 1600 per year at max based on how the system is structured (which is frustrating).

    Thanks for any thoughts you may have.