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Remember last year at this time when just about all law firm associates were burned out on their work, had way too much to do and not enough time to get all their work done? At the end of 2000, the question was not whether annual billable hour goals would be met but rather by how much they would be exceeded. There were no talks of layoffs. Instead, conversations revolved around which firm was paying the most money and the size of the year-end bonus. Instead of thoughts of carving up the holiday turkey or ham, partners were busy carving up Firm profits. That was then, this is year-end 2001. This year, the focus is on keeping one’s job and on survival. And who does survive is often determined on the lawyer’s billable hours. At The Firm, one’s value as a lawyer, and as a person, is judged primarily by the number of billable hours logged. Mastery of the law and expert legal analysis are fine and good, as far as they go. Such skills, however, are difficult to quantify. A lawyer’s billable hour tallies, on the other hand, are based on cold hard numbers and are a convenient yardstick to measure a lawyer’s performance. In other words, we are what we bill. Because so much of your future rides on the number of billable hours you produce, you must do all you can to place well in The Firm’s Billable Hour Derby. Ideally, senior lawyers at The Firm will provide you with a constant supply of work. As sometimes happens, however, there are dry periods. Like maybe the last six months has been a dry period for you. As anxiety over lack of billables builds up, you might consider taking the initiative and seeking out work from other lawyers. There are, however, serious risks associated with asking for assignments. This is because there is a perception that busy associates are good associates. Those who are capable attorneys, the theory goes, will always be in demand. Thus, having to ask for assignments is like having to ask for spare change on the street corner. It’s an indication that things are not as they should be. Still, the lawyer must nonetheless ask for work — or otherwise go hungry. When you go door-to-door at The Firm seeking work, there are several things that can happen. Unfortunately, most of them are bad. 1. The Nonbillable Assignment. You finally bring yourself to ask the question: “Please sir, may I have more work?” The partner looks at you, pauses and then smiles. He has an administrative project that has to be done on behalf of the firm or a promotional article that needs to be written for publication (under his name, of course). His assuring you that “It’s not billable but The Firm will certainly appreciate it” after handing off the assignment will do little to encourage you. 2. Work for Which You Don’t Really Need a Law Degree. Beggars can’t be choosers. When you ask for work at The Firm, you might get things to do that would otherwise be completed by a paralegal or secretary. Slightly better is an assignment to work on The Firm’s website or help organize documents for a big case or transaction. You will ask yourself if you went to law school to rearrange files and photocopies — but don’t knock it. On a timesheet, running a package to Federal Express looks just as good as trying a case in federal court. 3. Creating an Avalanche. Another bad thing that can happen is that you will get what you ask for. You make your way through a dozen senior lawyers asking for work. Each one turns you away empty timesheeted. The next time each of these lawyers needs help, however, your pathetic face comes to mind. You suddenly have a dozen projects on your desk when you were only looking for something to fill a few slow days. Go ahead and cancel those holiday plans. 4. Work Outside Your Expertise. As is almost always the case, within thirty minutes of getting the project you wish you had never asked for, your usual supplier of work comes through with a new assignment that has to be done right away. If you are a corporate attorney, you might have to say, “Sorry, I can’t work on that securities offering right now, I’ve got a visa application that has to be filed with the INS.” With all the bad things that can happen when you go around asking for assignments, perhaps the best approach is the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Simply hang around The Firm, look busy and whenever anyone asks you how you are, lie and say you’re swamped. Then hope that you’ll get a big holiday gift from a partner in the form of a project with lots of billable hours inside. The Rodent is a syndicated columnist and author of “Explaining the Inexplicable: The Rodent’s Guide to Lawyers.” His e-mail address is [email protected]

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