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Aaah, Memorial Day. Time to take the dream vacation that will justify a year of misery. Unless, that is, you’re worried about meeting billable-hours targets and earning that new megabonus. Fear not, dreamers. Help may be on the way. A Los Angeles firm has created an ingenious system to eliminate the fear of losing vacation — and maybe even keep your hours reasonable. Workaholism in law traces back at least as far as Rufus Choate, a lion of the Jacksonian bar. Choate, who couldn’t find time to accept a seat on the Supreme Court, defined a lawyer’s vacation as the space between a cross-examiner’s question and a witness’s answer. The 24-plus-hour billing day — made possible by a westbound plane trip — has evolved from myth into clich�. It was perhaps first documented by James B. Stewart, who cited in his book, “The Partners,” the 27-hour day put in by Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s Ron Rolfe (then an associate) on the IBM antitrust case in 1974. Partners of a certain age say that 1980s associates had it the worst and will dig out yellowed timesheets to prove it. But hours today are long and getting longer. When lawyers at Los Angeles’ Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger sat down to plot salary strategy, they knew this well. The 90-lawyer firm offered to match the new going rate of $125,000 for first-years, but that would mean raising billable targets 100 hours. Nobody wanted that. The obvious alternative was a two-track system, offering lower pay for fewer hours. But some doubted that associates on the lower track would advance. “If you’re rewarding people at 2,300 hours,” says associate Alison Clarke, “you’re not a lifestyle firm.” The solution was “Q-Time” (the “Q” stands for “quality”). Under the new system, Greenberg first-years earn only $115,000 base pay, but the billing target remains at 1,850 per year. What’s more, all associates earn a bankable week of credit for every 50 hours they bill above 1,950 hours, up to 2,400 hours. The credits may be redeemed for vacation, or for a mix of vacation and cash. Thus, a 2,400-hour biller can choose between an extra nine weeks of vacation, or an extra four weeks of salary plus an extra five weeks of vacation. When I reach Greenberg Glusker associate Heidi Binford by phone, she is surfing the Web, looking for her dream vacation. “It’s true, and it’s real, and I’m excited,” she says of Q-Time. Binford has earned a bunch of bankable “Quality-time” by helping Mattel avoid a $140 million verdict, and a second expected trial had settled just before my call. “I can’t remember the last time I had eight weeks off,” Binford says. “I think it was high school, but in high school I wasn’t getting paid for those eight weeks.” In a sense, Q-Time institutionalizes firm practice. Clarke last year reached 1,250 hours midway through the summer, after helping to try Jeffrey Katzenberg’s famous claim against Disney. “They told me to take as much time off as I wanted,” she says, “and when I got back, the managing partner said if it was too soon I should take more time.” She ended up with 1,810 billable hours on the year, plus seven weeks of sunning in Tahiti, museum-hopping in Austria and leafing through the L.A. Times at the neighborhood Starbucks. Part of what makes Q-Time feasible for Greenberg Glusker is the firm’s tradition of low hours. In 1999, only three associates billed over 2,000 hours. “The basic question is: ‘What do you value more, time or money?’” says hiring partner Paul Blechner. “We all value time more.” He says that partners, too, would make more money in a system that encourages billing more than 2,000 hours, because firms don’t pass on all the extra revenue to associates. But Blechner says that he’s already seen a spike in lateral applications, and preserving firm culture is priceless. That’s food for thought. “Who could complain about less hours?” asks Clarke, who spoke with me en route to Grand Cayman Island. Certainly not Binford, who is now happily chasing elephants in Tanzania. Perhaps the punctilious Choate, who would define vacation out of existence.

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