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Improving your billing ratio Productivity is all the rage these days. Maybe it always has been the rage and I’m just a little slow. But slow or not, productivity is all the rage. And for lawyers, productivity means one thing: billing hours. Whether you are for plaintiffs or against them, whether you are litigation or corporate, your bottom line depends an awful lot on how many hours you can bill. You’ll notice that the emphasis is not on how many hours you work, but on how many you bill. It is an important distinction. One that is largely misunderstood. For example, most of my colleagues (read: other poor lawyer saps with whom I commiserate) often lament that in a week of actually working 60 hours, they are only able to bill 45 or so. And that’s the ratio that seems to be important. Young law students, still idealistic, will ask me, “how many hours did you bill last year?” Answer: “2273.6.” “And how many hours did you have to work to bill that? Like 2600?” At this point I give them my best weary smile and knowing look of the impending doom they will soon encounter. The truth is folks, hours worked doesn’t really matter. Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out how to bill 10 hours a day while only actually working 8? We could be like those Cravath over-achievers in the 80s who flew around the world so they could manipulate the time zones and bill 26 hours in a day or some such nonsense. (As if they actually “worked” in those first class seats — wink.) But imagine if we could do something similar without the headache of flying. The goal, my friends, is 100% billing efficiency. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of the corner office calling you partner. Of course, there are ethical considerations. Once, shortly after I began practicing, a Canadian lawyer gave me some advice: “Just find work you can bill to two clients. That makes you twice as profitable.” Now I don’t know if I just happened to meet an unethical lawyer or if it’s alright to double bill in Canada. But here, in these United States, we make our lawyers earn their money. Double billing is unethical. So how do we ethically improve our ratio of hours worked to hours billed? Some advice I got from my first law firm in the form of a PowerPoint slide was: “Don’t Cut Your Time.” The point was driven home with the clever image of scissors clip-art around clock clip-art all of which was surrounded by a big circle with a slash through it. (I didn’t frame it, but I did hang that slide prominently in my first office.) So that’s my first tip to you. Don’t cut your time. Let someone else cut it. If you’re an associate, let the partner worry about it. If you’re a partner, let the client worry about it. If someone comes down on you for billing more time, deal with it then. “Really?” The associate can ask the partner, “You said ‘no more than 2 hours?’ Weird. I wrote down 20. I’ll remember for next time.” The partner can have even more fun with the client: “Are you complaining about the bill again? You should probably go to that other firm, then. Of course, they’re less efficient, more expensive, and didn’t go to Harvard, but you’ll probably like them.” A number of years ago, some friends of mine told me about this book they were reading to help their intimacy. That was too much for me to know. But they told me even more. This book was titled, “Sex Begins in the Kitchen.” Apparently the title was only a gimmick to sell books. The thesis was that even at breakfast, if couples say nice things to each other, that will equate to improved intimacy later. I mention this only because intimacy isn’t the only thing that can start early in the morning. So can billing. There’s no reason the first thought you have every morning can’t be about the particularly complicated work you have to do later that day. Bill the time for those thoughts. Think about that work in the shower and bill the shower. When you’re eating breakfast, why can’t you read or re-read that pile of documents you need to take back to the office? Or dash off some billable email on that little black billing machine you use for your alarm clock, telephone, Gameboy, and new best friend. I want to caution you now against those thoughts that may start to enter your head about how you need to get a life and you need to restrict your work hours to between only 10 and 12 hours a day. Avoid those thoughts. They are negative energy. They are the equivalent to negative chi in the feng shui world. They will bring you down. They will shake your self-confidence. Even worse, they’re not billable time. You will loathe the weakness you showed when you account for your time and notice that you were less than 100% efficient. Be strong. Now what about the inefficient times of day? Things like lunch, coffee breaks, March Madness. Let me just help you. If you are not constantly thinking about your clients and how to solve their legal problems, you are doing it wrong. Lunch and coffee breaks are times to vocalize thoughts and get feedback. March Madness and the ballet are times to analogize legal problems to physical activity and use metaphor to get past that tricky issue. They should be times of legal epiphany, not mental dormancy. Quite frankly, your sleep should be filled with similar epiphanies. But I’ve yet to find such an understanding client. Adam Anderson, a Scottsdale lawyer at Beus Gilbert PLLC, bills efficiently and is happy to bill you to share his profound insight.

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