Adventures in Associate Attorneyship: Time is (and isn't) money

Lawyering - especially associate lawyering - has become synonymous with the shibboleth of billable hours - racking them, counting them, logging them and obsessing over them. Big firms place immensely unrealistic billable hours goals on the muddled heads of their young 'uns and for understandable, if maniacal reason. Namely, they're the hours you get to bill. And it is hard not to fixate a bit when those magical hours are worth hundreds of dollars. I have to admit to a touch of vertigo reflecting on how my thorough trial preparation day has eaten through a hefty retainer.

But let's be clear that there is another side to this coin (get it - we're talking about money and I used a cliche that involves... har har... sigh). Lay people - lay, not law - people - see these hourly rates and the fact that every tenth of an hour for things like answering their calls or receiving a letter are subject to this rate, and assume that lawyers must all be wildly wealthy (setting aside muttered comments about price gouging etc. aside) after feasting on the bank accounts of their clients. Sadly, this is not the case. And it is isn't because I'm an exploited associated who gets paid an hourly wage that is just over 10% of my hourly rate...

Here's the problem with billable hours - for every billable hour you work, there are non billable working hours. A lot of them, sometimes. This is particularly true for private practice and small firms where up to half o the day may require administrative dealings, none of which is billable. My mom can spend an entire day working herself into the ground and log nothing to charge for. It's just the nature of the beast. Even for lowly associates such as myself, it's a challenge to top six hours in a given day. Well particularly since I'm new and thus do a lot of training type activities like following my mom around. And that's with a lot of work. Given this, it's no wonder that many young associates work 80 hour weeks. In order to reach a high billable hours minimum, they have no other choice. You cannot avoid the non-billable working hour. It is impossible.

My non exclusive list of hours that are pointedly (perhaps regrettably) not-billable:

1. Making Coffee: Considering the wonders it does for my ability to focus on the niggling details of complicated and convoluted life stories against the craggy background of our caselaw and court rules, it really ought to be, but it just isn't.

2. Starting the office up: There are lights to turn on, computers to take an eternity to boot up, copiers and printers to start, and locks to be undone. Mostly, it's the computer and the interminable wait for various necessary programs to start up.This can be doubled into the coffee making fairly well.  There is also the morning reorientation involving looking at the work to be done, the work that has been done, and the inevitable mysterious file or piece of paper wedged in between a few recognizable files. I keep an ongoing list on my wall that I consult a number of times a day just to keep my fairly limited tasks manageable.None of that is exactly billable.

3. Preparing for Client Meetings: Preparation includes far more than any legal research, which could be billable. Before a meeting I do the following things: change into my suit jacket, quickly apply makeup (studies also regrettably show that women are deemed infinitely more competent when they are wearing makeup so I swear this is a business investment and not pure narcissism), gel my hair to tame the frizz resulting from walking at my desk all day, move all the confidential files off of their festively strewn schema on the desk, windex said desk, pace back and forth nervously because I am still a new attorney, and run between offices to grab a yellow pad, a pen, the file... oh CRAP WHERE'S THE FILE??... it usually takes about ten minutes to do all of this, but of course there is the very real possibility that the client will not show. In which case, there is a grace waiting period. Technically, the client has agreed to pay a penalty fee for not showing up without 24 hours' notice, but it is rarely pursued. My mom handles this by (1) being cool and confident enough to basically not need to mentally prepare for most cases in elaborate crazy-attorney fashion, and (2) working right up until the client is clearly there and ready.

I'm so pretty, I must know the law!

4. Consultations: Consults come in off the street after setting up an appointment and - in our office - pay a flat fee (heavily discounted) immediately before the consultation begins. Oddly enough, if you do some research beforehand, you will not be able to present the consult with a bill of additional hours worked. The same prep work applies, perhaps even more so because there is no rapport built up between consult and attorney at this point. In the world of lawyer, a consult is really more like a blind date, and if I recall from the days of online dating... well, being stood up is not uncommon. And the likelihood of a no show is significantly higher due to the fact that we don't have anything on them - no signed fee agreement letting us charge them, no deposit, no retainer.

5. Keeping Edumacated: Legal research addressing a specific client's concern is billable as mentioned, but an attorney has more of a generalized duty to know the law anticipatorily. That means following recent cases and legislation. I go to the Washington Supreme Court on an at least weekly basis to check for new cases that might have an effect on future clients. All of us have to take CLEs.

6. Networking: There is no better term for it, but at least one lunch time a month is likely going to be involved in some committee of lawyers. Doing this helps work with attorneys on future cases - rapport between attorneys can go miles towards helping a client's case, but even more importantly, having a place when you can definitely find an attorney (we are notoriously elusive creatures, particularly when other lawyers want to discuss a case with us). This also has to do with keeping current on the law and improving best practices by discussing specific issues and approaches. Oh and it takes time both ways, particularly if you end up in any position of power.

7. Venting, Kibbitzing and/or Gossiping: People are inherently fascinating and infuriating in turn. Family law is a business where you have access to copious salacious details about both people who - due to the nature of the engagement - are rarely on their best behavior. Add to this the fact that our silly Rules of Professional conduct require (1) we don't talk about the representation with any one not impliedly or expressly authorized, (2) we have to let the clients make their own - sometimes - less than brilliant choices, (3) we can't punch the clients in the face when they vent their frustration with the situation on us (on the other hand - we do get to bill them for their venting!) It makes for a bit of a pressure cooker and means occasionally you just have to talk about the crazy client who left his two year old with a crackwhore so he could score some weed and just spent the last hour telling you that you and the GAL are out to get him (also billable)! Because if you don't, some RPCs might get broken. And it's good to listen by the same token. And sometimes, you overhear a case you're not specifically working on and have some input or curiosity enough to drop in and offer your ten cents. Not billable.

8. Filing: Filing is the ultimate Quixotic quest... desperately aimed at keeping an orderly and clean office. It will never be accomplished, but with some effort an attorney may avoid being eaten by paper, like that one scene in Brazil. Not really billable though, despite its propensity to devour one's time and sanity.

9. Rebooting the computer, hitting the copier, screaming at FamilySoft, and long waits on the phone waiting for the Geek Squad to come to the rescue: So, if there are minor technology issues during billable work, maybe a few flitting fixes may be folded into your bill, but when things go seriously sideways... the day goes static. Since there are computer malfunctions of varying severity approximately ever two hours, these little things can add up!

10. Billing itself! Billing is a major pain in the patootie, especially given said software and the propensity for computer glitches. It takes time both at the moment of acting and the moment of entry. Each client and each activity is a separate entry and that adds up. I would so totally love to bill somebody for being billed, but apparently that would be a tad recursive. C'est la vie.

And don't get me started (because 10 is such a nice number for a list) About all the time spent thinking about work done for clients... I don't actually bill for when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a client's declaration or when the conversation drifts to what the hearing argument is going to be for a case. I suspect if I were an associate at one of those big-law 50billionbillablehours firms, I might reconsider this practice.

So, it's hard to me to bill a lot of hours, but I'm at the office a lot of hours. And I - as an associate - get paid an hourly wage. Which creates all sorts of weird contradictory feelings of guilt and angst: On the one hand, I feel horribly guilty whenever I bill a client, because I realize that their resources are limited and my work is not lightening fast (and can't be without a bevy of costlier mistakes), but on the other, I feel like a slacker for not billing more.

It's enough to make a person a little batty or maybe:


And still I stay super sincere looking, don't I? Yay for cards.

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