You can’t beat the billable hour

I did well in law school.  I know, I know, this is kind of bragging.  But doing well in law school does not seem to be a marketable skill on its own so let’s give me this one thing.

What was my secret?  (Besides hours and hours of hard work?)  Let me tell you something shocking, particularly for those of you that know me well.  After the first year, I stopped doing the reading.

Wait, what?  How does an uptight, Type A person such as myself do such a thing?  Simple.  I realized that doing all the reading was not the best use of my time to get results.

Results in law school are grades.  For the vast majority of classes, your grade comes down to one exam at the end of the semester.  There are no pop quizzes along the way.  No five page essays.  There may be some amorphous participation component, but the real meat of the grade is your performance on this single exam.

To study for this exam, you outline all the material you learn, putting all the cases into neatly digestible bullets.  This is what you see all the kids doing in every law school movie you ever watch.  You might see study groups splitting up sections of outlining responsibility and then sharing.

The facts of (most) cases don’t really matter on their own.  You read the case to see how some legal principle played out.  This legal principle is what you need to know and what you put in your outline.  The case is just an example.

The first year, I spent WAY too much time reading cases.  I was so nervous about being cold called in class that I read each case like five times.  (And it didn’t even really help that much when I was called on!  It was like my mind blanked and I heard this rushing roar.  It was never the collegial conversation about a case that I envisioned.)  I don’t regret all of that case reading.  It taught me how to read cases.  How to dissect the procedural history and explanations and to see what matters.  To do this, you have to read a lot of cases.

But then I discovered that, after your 1L year, cold calling is not the law of the land.  At this point, professors have different tactics that they publish in advance.  Some professors might have you on call one day a week.  Or one day a semester.  Some might give you an option to be super prepared for one week, but to be left alone the rest of the semester.  Some might go down the alphabet so that you could roughly see when your number is up.  Some still cold called.  I tried to take classes based on rock star professors–I would take shoe law if an interesting professor taught it (wait, maybe shoe law actually sounds pretty interesting)–but I tended to shy away from straight cold call classes if I could.

I did the reading on days when I needed to; otherwise, I very lightly skimmed what was assigned and just enjoyed my time in class.  It was such a relief.  I could breathe again.  I could pay attention to what was happening without feeling a sinking feeling and panic whenever the professor looked up.  But then, after class, I spent the time I would have spent reading and dedicated it to my outline.  I may have read some major sections of cases, but generally I just worked at plugging what we learned into a neat set of indents and bullets.  Then by the end of the semester, I already had a full outline, ready to go.  Because the outline, not the reading, was what mattered. 

Doing well in law school did land me a job at a prestigious law firm.  At the firm, I quickly realized that there was no such shortcut.  No hack to promote efficiency.  At the firm, you had to do excellent work.  You couldn’t anger your colleagues.  But the most important yardstick was the almighty billable hour.

You can’t fake the billable hour.  You can’t hack it.  The only way to do it is to put in the time.  You are super productive and manage your energy wisely so you blow through everything on your to do list?  Doesn’t matter.  You still need to work the hours.  You need to take on more work.  No matter that this work might shift your balance so that you have too much work.  After all, that memo you finished today is coming back to you later this week for edits.  Bill, baby, bill.

Lest you think that you can sit down and just plow through eight hours of billables straight, let me tell you that it isn’t possible.  First off, you frequently have to do things that aren’t billable billable.  Yes, you have a code so that you can record your time, but they don’t really count to your total.  These are things like trainings, firm meetings, and clearing out your inbox.  Second, it isn’t possible for anyone to work straight with zero breaks.  You need to eat.  And pee.  And occasionally interact with other human beings.  All of these things mean it takes longer to hit your billable quota.

(To be fair to my firm, I never hit the billable hour quota, and I was never asked to leave.  I was, at times, asked to take on more work.)

Laura Vanderkam, my favorite time management guru, wrote recently about whether billable hours lead to unhappiness.  She understands the challenges of the billable hour.

“[S]pending half an hour on a document instead of an hour doesn’t mean you get to be done. It means you need to tackle some other billable work.”

Vanderkam offers suggestions on tackling billables, such as bill first, start billing earlier, dedicate larger chunks of time (like a dedicated weekend) to have other chunks free, and plan quality activities for when you aren’t billing.

These are good ideas, and I certainly tried some, specifically bill first and bill early.  Post-kids, I adopted the schedule of a 4:30 or 5:00 am wakeup to get a few hours in, spend time with the baby, and then head into the office.  These early hours were precious writing hours, and I tried not to squander them on low-brainpower tasks that could wait until the afternoon.  (In case this sounds horrible to you, all I can say is that I did not do well with a split evening shift–although I sometimes had to work one.  At the end of the day after commuting, dinner, bath, I just wanted to chill with a glass of wine, not log back on.)

These early morning hours were also protected.  Particularly as someone more junior, your schedule is not your own.   You don’t decide when the conference call happens.  You don’t schedule the training.  For someone usually generating the first version of documents, these interruptions can kill your day.  (Maker’s v. Manager’s Schedule.  YES, this.)  My early morning hours at least gave me a jumpstart before the unpredictability of the day.

The suggestion to have dedicated work weekends or evenings to catch up, however, I think is a little trickier.  This assumes that hours are fungible.  One hour could be worked either at 10:00 am one day or 10:00 pm the next.  But hours are not worked in a vacuum.  Enter clients.

Clients pay the bills, and peskily, have certain expectations on when they will receive work.  Ideally, the work-bringer-in-er would negotiate a reasonable schedule so that the work could be done in a timely, but un-crazy fashion.  But that doesn’t always happen.  Emergencies come up.  Things can fall through the cracks.  Sometimes you are just slammed no matter what.

But sometimes you aren’t busy.  Sometimes there are built in lulls.  You just sent a memo to the client or partner and are waiting to hear back.  You just filed a brief and are waiting for the court or opposing counsel.  Ideally, you’d have something else to turn to, but you may not.  If you take on more work, you won’t be able to juggle everything together.  Everyone says to enjoy the slow times; that the busy times will make up for it on hours.  But first, I like my lulls much more when I can plan something, which is hard to do when you suddenly end up with a slow afternoon.  Second, what if the busy times don’t even out, even though it feels like they should?  If you throw in some weekends or nights, it starts to feel like a lot of work, even if your overall hours don’t tell the same story.

So I don’t think a dedicated work chunk would be helpful, at least in my previous corner of biglaw.  If I had a dedicated weekend, I might already be working it or burnt out from whatever I’d just worked.

The closest efficiency hack I could offer would be to avoid all non-billable activities.  Don’t be on a committee.  Don’t be social with summer associates.  Skip the trainings.  Don’t stop and talk to your neighbor.  These activities are double whammies because they eat time and take away from possible billing.

But this approach isn’t very fun.  Or sociable.  It creates people who are not good firm stewards.  It may work in the short term, but I don’t think it would sustainable over a career.

I never found any secrets to fix the billable hour.  Someday I will figure out a new pricing system for firms and become a gazillionaire.  For now, I’m just enjoying not having to bill my hours.

Fellow lawyers, did you adopt any more successful strategies?  Or anyone else on the billable hour? 

5 thoughts on “You can’t beat the billable hour

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