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Like surfing the Internet during a conference call, bill padding is the sort of activity that many lawyers do, but few will admit to. In this year’s Midlevel Associates Survey conducted by The American Lawyer, however, 160 associates from 79 law firms � or about 4 percent of respondents � report that inflating their hours on time sheets is an accepted practice at their firms. The associates come from various firms, practice groups, and cities, although New York seems to have a concentration of firms with bill inflaters. Thirty-nine percent of this group practices in New York, while only 26 percent of the survey’s respondents work in the city. Many agree that the tendency to inflate hours is an unavoidable, albeit unfortunate, byproduct of the bill-or-burn culture of big-firm life. They blame hefty billing requirements, a downturn in business, inadequate training, and the difficulty of accurately recording six-minute intervals of work. “I know people who sit down at the end of the day and say, ‘What’s a defensible amount of time that I could say I’ve been here?’ ” says an associate at a New York-based firm. “ They think of what number they can rationally allocate to each task. The way that you write your time can be an art, and people can get quite creative.” Managing partners dispute this message. “I am surprised, shocked, and disagree a thousand percent,” says Cesar Alvarez, chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, one of six firms who had five or more associates reply yes to the question, “Is inflating hour reports on time sheets an accepted practice at your firm?” (The others were Baker & McKenzie; King & Spalding; O’Melveny & Myers; Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.) “We train our people and tell them on a regular basis that this behavior is not acceptable. These are lawyers, and they know the ethics.” Some associates are selective about whose bills they pad. “If a client is a jerk, I might take a walk around the hall and bill him for my time,” says a fourth-year associate at a Milwaukee firm. Others are more likely to pad the bills of clients with deep pockets or those who have agreed to an estimate. “If we’ve been given an estimate from a client, then the firm wants us to come up with enough hours,” says an associate at a Houston firm. “I’ve had [partners] say, ‘We gave this client an estimate of $10,000, and you only billed $8,000. That’s $2,000 we could have made, and you didn’t bill for.’ Later, I went into accounting and saw that they had added some additional document review to the bill.” But inflating hour reports doesn’t always mean creating work out of nowhere. “It’s so absurd to think that anyone can be completely accurate when they have 10 different things going on,” says a third-year associate in Washington, D.C. “I have a certain amount of paranoia because I find being completely accurate so difficult, and it’s both a legal and ethical necessity to get it right.” Some associates say that the billable-hour system itself is part of the problem. “Things that I could dictate to my secretary, I type out because it could take a little longer,” says the Milwaukee-based fourth-year. “I’ve had partners say in my review, ‘Work less efficiently.’ “ Alvarez and other managing partners point to a series of checks and balances that ensure proper billing. Billing partners and clients scrutinize bills, they say. Associates discuss their billing performance in evaluations. And associates take part in billing and ethics seminars during orientation and, often, several years later. But no amount of training can override the subtle clues that influence how some associates track their time. Says the Milwaukee-based fourth-year: “If you see a conference call with eight lawyers sitting around a table, and the client is OK with that, you know that you can be inefficient.” Helen Coster is a reporter at The American Lawyer , the New York-based monthly ALM magazine where this article originally appeared.

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