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? 

One theory on why fewer women partners in law firms

So I stumbled across this article the other day, Being a Stay-at-Home Parent Is a Luxury … for Your Spouse.  I swear, I am really not trying to wade into any of the mommy wars.  But the article made me think about my previous experience at a law firm.

Of the male partners I knew, many had

To caveat, I’m speaking purely anecdotally about my own experiences, but I think some of this likely rings true in other places.  Also, please prepare yourself for some guesstimation. Ok, moving on to the part where I really try not to offend the interets.  [UPDATE:  this is also not a comprehensive theory on why fewer women partners.  This is more like one possible contributing factor.  If I had it all figured out, I could hire myself as a law firm fixin’ consultant and clean house.]

My firm had over 400 attorneys in its DC office.  At the associate level, the ranks are pretty evenly split between men and women.  For partners, however, less than half are women.  Maybe around 1/4?  1/3?  Like I said, I’m guesstimating, but–as at most firms–fewer women partners.

Of the male partners I knew, many had stay-at-home spouses.  Of the women partners, one did.

Law firm life can be very flexible, but it is certainly demanding.  It really helps not to have to worry about leaving at a certain time to pick up the kids or rescheduling a conference call to take someone to the doctor’s.  As the author notes, having someone at home certainly makes travel and staying late easier.  And you can be more productive when you can outsource all those nagging tasks like remembering to buy more band-aids, picking up a present for the birthday party on Saturday, and waiting for the internet repair peeps to show up.

It is possible to have these benefits with a working spouse, but you have to hire help.  Which means finding good help and then managing someone.  It’s not impossible, but it adds layers.  Many lawyers with big careers are drawn to coupling with other people with big careers which can mean less wiggle room and time to manage people.

In sum, my generalization is that, in my experience, more male partners than female partners had situations where they had less to manage on the domestic front.  Law firms reward those who can fully commit to the office.  Having someone else do things at home makes that commitment easier.  Now again–I am not trying to anger you, oh internet–I’m in no way saying any of these things are better than any others.  This is just my observation on the way it played out at the firm.

Hope about you, hopefully unangered reader?  Would you benefit from a stay-at-home spouse?  Have you noticed any differences for those with a stay-at-home spouse?


Are things different? Glad you asked: Lifestyle Edition

Differences around the house summarized here.

Before the move, I was a full-time associate at a law firm in DC.  Henry was in daycare full-time and Mac would have been headed that way.  Now, I’m home with both kids in Rome.  I’m enjoying it so far.  I enjoy it more because what I did before was so different.  I’m sure my thoughts on this will change, but here’s my biggest positive and negative to date.


On the plus side, I’m more relaxed now.  I didn’t realize how draining I found it trying to get everyone places on time.  And it felt like we were always trying to get some place on time.  Rushing to get out the door in the mornings.  Rushing to make it to daycare on time before it closed.  Rushing to get home.  Even meeting up with friends on the weekends could feel like a chore to get out the door.

Now there are rarely places we have to be at certain times.  I like that.  We do have social engagements (not as fancy as that sounds), but they are pretty casual.  Also, many have been in a group setting so we aren’t making anyone wait if we are delayed.

Ditto for deadlines.  Work was–understandably–filled with deadlines.  Clients needed things at certain times.  That meant I either needed to finish it in time to send to the client or in time to send to the partner to review and send to the client.  Sometimes deadlines felt arbitrary.  But even arbitrary deadlines are important when someone is paying you for that timing.

Now my deadlines are my own.  And are more goals than deadlines.  I’m working to post here every weekday, but the world doesn’t end if I don’t.  I’d like to get a little more on top of tasks like emailing so and so, scheduling a photo shoot, booking trips, etc.  But these are all my tasks to do, and I get to decide when to do them.  Or when James gets to do them.


I like that I can breathe a little easier.  But I do miss what I describe as “bodily autonomy.”  The ability to just take yourself by yourself wherever you’d like to go.  Before I had hours each day where I could do this.  Granted, I was usually just commuting, working, grabbing lunch, etc. but oh the freedom of movement!  Now, we were here more than two weeks before I used the stairs in our building.  Because every other time I had the stroller or a child strapped to me.  Getting out the door now requires packing the stuff and equipment to transport 50 pounds of children.  Even inside the house, things like bathroom trips are strategic.  You always have to know where all the players are on the field.  I remember now hearing other moms saying that sometimes they just didn’t want to be touched by the end of the day.  I get it now.  Oh, I get it.

I know that some of this I’m doing to myself.  If I wanted to head out alone, I could do more.  But when James comes home after work, it’s time for dinner.  And then bedtime.  Which I could skip.  But at the end of the day, I’m not usually jumping to go bounding out the door by myself.  Ditto for weekends.  I could definitely do more by myself, but this is family time.  I hate to miss it.  I’m sure things will change as they get a little older.  Until then, I’m working on putting together some ladies nights.  I registered for the lottery for the Berlin marathon to see if I can cross that off the travel list, and if I get in, that will mean plenty of solo training time.

So plenty of other differences, but those are my big two.  Anyone made a similar switch?  What was your biggest difference?