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When I was a junior associate at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., I didn’t worry much about my hours. I figured that meeting my billable target, while important, was mostly out of my control. I worked on the projects that partners assigned to me. I did a good job. I had a good attitude. I turned in my work on time. I thought that was enough. When my hours report came for the month, I really had no idea what the number would be. Opening the report was a little like opening a present — I didn’t know what was inside, but I was hoping for something good. Sometimes it wasn’t good. My hours were sometimes low even though I thought I had worked hard that month. Short of taking on another big case, I didn’t know what to do. The answer, I learned, was to manage my time more proactively. Almost 10 years have passed. After working in private practice at two large firms; serving on hiring committees, professional development committees, and women’s initiatives; serving as an associate adviser, a summer-associate mentor, and a trial-advocacy coach; and working with the American Bar Association on ethics, professionalism, and attorney morale, I became a professional development consultant. One of the things I do is teach attorneys how to meet their billable requirements without sacrificing their personal and professional priorities. One of the hardest lessons to teach any law firm attorney is that good work is not enough. To succeed, you have to meet your firm’s billing expectations. Read the NALP Directory of Legal Employers and you’ll see that most firms have a minimum billable-hours expectation of at least 1,900 hours. Regardless of the published number, many firms expect more hours: 2,100, 2,200, and above. Some firms don’t publish a minimum at all. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care how many hours you bill; it just means they think you are smart enough to figure it out. Billing hours is one of the least enjoyable aspects of private practice, but it does have one serious advantage over many professional jobs — namely, when you finish your work, you can go home. The billable hour explains why, when new associates ask when they need to begin and end their day, they often receive a curious look and not much of an answer. Some partners will say flat out, “I don’t care.” That’s true in part. Most firms don’t care much about when you work, as long as you bill enough hours and finish your assignments on time. Unfortunately, this poses a problem for new associates because they honestly don’t know when they should begin their day and how many hours of “work” it takes to “bill” a certain number of hours. As a result, some associates regularly work 9 to 7, as well as some late nights and weekends, and still have low billable hours. Other associates live at the firm and still barely meet their target. Here’s how to design a schedule that ensures you will meet the firm’s expectations and still have a life. Set an annual billable target. Find out what your firm’s minimum billable expectation is, if it has one. Ask your mentor how many hours associates in your office are billing. Find out how many hours associates in your practice group are billing — it may vary from group to group. And think about your own professional and personal commitments. Use all this information to decide how many hours you should bill in a given year, then set your own annual target. The target should be at least as high as the firm’s published minimum and ideally within 50 hours of what associates in your office typically bill. If you’re looking for a significant bonus, you may have to bill much more. Even if you think you don’t want to stay at your firm for more than a few years or that you don’t want to make partner, you should still aim for the firm’s minimum. Fall far short and you may be placed on some kind of probation. Fall far short for several years and you may be asked to leave. Next, determine how many hours you need to bill on a typical day. Most associates at large law firms need to bill about nine hours on a typical day. Yet most associates underestimate this number by a wide margin. They take their annual billable target and, naturally, divide it by 12 to set a target for each month. Some firms do the same thing to generate reports that tell associates whether they are below, on, or above pace for the month. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t account for any slow months, vacation, holidays, sick leave, or personal obligations. Associates who use this approach often fall behind just a few months into the year. As the deficit grows, they either give up on reaching their target or drive themselves crazy trying to catch up. Many associates conclude that billing 2,000 hours a year, year in and year out, is too difficult. It’s no wonder that almost half of entry-level associates leave private practice by their third year. To manage your billable hours, you need to set a realistic number of hours to bill each day. That number must reflect the cyclical nature of most practices and the number of days you will not work. To get to that number, I tell most associates to assume they have 11 months to bill 2,000 hours, not 12. If you have other significant personal commitments outside of work, you might need to ratchet that down even further. One associate with small children said she assumes she has 10 months to reach her target. Use the 11-month approach to billing 2,000 hours and you’ll have a monthly target of 182 hours, a weekly target of 45 hours, and a daily target of nine hours. Use the 12-month approach and you’ll have a monthly target of 167 hours, a weekly target of 42 hours, and a daily target of eight hours. That’s a difference of almost 200 hours a year. Use the 11-month approach and you will bill above pace most months in order to take into account other months when you have less work or need time off. Use the 12-month approach and you’ll fall an hour short most days. By the end of the year you’ll have missed your annual target by 100, 200, or more hours — a deficit the firm will notice — or you’ll have spent many nights and weekends working to catch up. I’ve heard of associates pulling an all-nighter on New Year’s Eve, not to party but to meet their annual target. ONE DAY AT A TIME Next, use your daily billable target to set a daily schedule. To hit 2,000 hours, it’s not enough to budget nine hours in the office. You need to add a little time for breaks, errands, and administrative work. Many associates assume they will bill virtually every minute in the office, but it doesn’t work that way. If you like to take an hour for lunch or if you like to work out every day, add an hour. If you find you have a significant amount of nonbillable assignments and paperwork, add another hour. One immigration lawyer told me that a significant piece of her day is spent dispensing free legal advice to her colleagues and friends. That’s just a reality of her practice and one way she develops more billable work. Another young lawyer who was asked to serve on his firm’s hiring committee told me he spends about an hour every day from September through November reviewing r�sum�s and writing samples and interviewing prospective summer associates. You too could be asked to take on a client development project or to serve on a firm committee. If so, you’ll need to budget more time in the office for nonbillable work. If you’re the type who eats lunch at your desk most days and delegates every item of nonbillable work to a staff person, you still need to assume that one hour each day will not be billable. You’re going to send a few personal e-mails, take a few personal calls, and maybe even surf the Web for a minute or two. Moreover, even if you could, theoretically, bill every minute you’re in the office, you shouldn’t. You need time to recharge and time for professional development. Nine billable hours and one or two nonbillable hours each day do not make an easy schedule, but it’s a realistic one. The good news (or bad news, depending on your point of view) is that with laptops, BlackBerries, cell phones, and all-in-ones (combination fax, printer, scanner, and copier) you can shorten your day in the office by working a little at home. This is especially helpful for new associates who have small children or other significant personal commitments. EARLY BIRD And finally, decide when to get to work. Since partners don’t care very much about when you begin and end your day, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of getting to work late and working late. Try not to. It’s far better to get into work early. The reason is simple: You can accomplish much more early in the morning when things are quiet than at other times of the day when the phone is ringing, people are stopping by, paper is piling up, and e-mails are filling your in-box. Associates who arrive midmorning when the office is already humming are forced to work late because they don’t get much uninterrupted time until the evening, when the office begins to quiet down again. One associate told me she spends the whole day “putting out fires” and begins major projects at 6:30 p.m.! Not a great schedule for anyone who wants a life outside the law. Arrive early and you can bill nine hours, take a few breaks, and still go home at a reasonable hour. I spoke with someone recently who threw up his hands and said it was pointless to set a schedule because clients, partners, and other external forces determine his day. True, some days you will get a call at 3 p.m. with an urgent assignment. Or a partner may set up a meeting at 5 p.m. that you know will run late. Don’t get irritated and abandon your schedule; your goal is to impose a routine for a typical day. That’s all you can do, and that’s what you need to do to have some sense of balance in your life. So, to you new associates out there, congratulations on launching your career. Start off strong by designing a schedule that’s in sync with your firm’s billing expectations. You’ll have time during the day to recharge, you’ll work fewer nights and weekends, and you’ll take more vacations — while meeting, or exceeding, your billable target. In sum, you’ll have a life, which is what I hear most associates want these days.
Coke Morgan Stewart is a professional development consultant based in Washington, D.C.

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