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President's Message - December 2017
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“The Challenges of the Billable Hour”
Olga Álvarez, Lawyers Club President 2017-2018
    Depending on firm policy, the end of December will likely close the books for the year on billable hours. For many attorneys, this is the “list” that is truly checked once and checked twice during the season. Associates create billing strategies for the next year on how to better manage hours. What is likely not in that calculation are the additional hours it takes to accomplish the annual billable hour goals. For instance, Yale Law School published a study finding that in order to bill 1800 hours per year an attorney must work an additional 620 hours. To bill 2200 hours per year, an additional 857 hours must be worked. Neither number includes time dedicated to business development.
    One of the top reasons many female attorneys leave the law is related to their difficulty in meeting the firm’s billable hour requirement. Lower hours may be due to receiving fewer desirable assignments that can be classified as grunt work or cases no one else wanted. If the work assigned is not challenging, then it is difficult to fulfill the billable-hour requirement and learn the skills to become a good lawyer. Despite the fact that women work just as hard as their male counterparts, men are often credited with more billable hours. The reasons are unclear, but the research suggests that law firms are giving women less challenging billable work or giving women more nonbillable tasks to perform such as mentoring or recruitment of associates.
    On the surface, billable hour requirements appear to measure attorneys equally and objectively without regard to gender or any other diverse factor. However, in reality they often favor male attorneys, because men generally do not have the same outside child and family care responsibilities as women. Additionally, homophily, the phenomenon of people feeling most comfortable with those familiar to them, still persists. Male partners tend to assign work to other male attorneys for no other reason than because they are male. In these situations, a male attorney with high billables might not be inherently more productive than his female counterpart, he may simply have shared more characteristics with the person assigning the work. As a result, he has had more opportunities to demonstrate his drive and productivity.
    At times, senior attorneys have commented that if they billed many hours as a young associate then the newer attorneys should do it as well. However, the expectation for billable hours has grown over time. In the mid-1980s the annual target was approximately 1200 hours per year. In 2010, the average target was around 1500 hours for smaller firms and 1700 hours for larger firms. Now, the National Association for Law Placement estimated that lawyers working for larger firms bill approximately 2100 hours per year and that firms of fewer than 250 lawyers average around 1970 hours per year. These averages do not include the time dedicated to developing clients or preparing conference papers, all of which contribute to excellence as an attorney and building a book of business.
    To escape the billable hour requirement, women must create a book of business. The more business that is generated, the better she does financially, with less importance on how many hours she works as long as she is able to bring in business. This sounds ideal, but how do we get from first year associate to a productive book of business? For now, it includes seven years of meeting billable hours and below are a few helpful hints:
  1. Understand the project before billing. If the associate spins her wheels on a project she doesn’t fully understand, partners will end up writing-off that time.
  2. Associates must evaluate assignments and obligations to the firm. Determine if either fulfills billable hour requirements. If they don’t, develop a strategy that includes receiving more billable work.
  3. Partners assign work to determine who they can trust. Meeting deadlines, providing status updates, and turning in work early are big plusses. Make the partner look good in front of the client and the court, and the associate will be trusted with more work.
  4. Get organized and cut distractions including personal phone calls and texting. Performing non-essential tasks do not go unnoticed. If there are deficiencies in the work, those deficiencies will be attributed to the distractions.
  5. People are much more productive when they are not jumping around from task to task or case to case. Organize and list the top three items that need to be completed that day.
    To the associates reading this article, if meeting the annual billable hour requirement continues to be a challenge, think about moving to a firm with a lower requirement that invests in creating good lawyers. To the partners reading this article, take a good look at those associates who are unable to meet their hours and evaluate the type of work and obligations they have been assigned. We all have part to play in ensuring that women advance in the legal profession. Evaluating billable hour requirements is a place to start to change the paradigm.

Olga Álvarez is co-founder and shareholder of Heisner Álvarez, APC in La Jolla. She is a Certified Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law and is president of Lawyers Club.
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