With homage to Ogden Nash, whom many of my [four] readers may be too young to remember, I offer this:
If I had to describe the oddest and most confounding aspect of my job in fewer than four syllables
Ladies and gentlemen, respectfully I submit to you that the answer is this word: Billables.
Billable time runs my life. Besides conforming to the word count requirement for this column, it is the only numerical aspect of my existence. I am math-challenged. I went to law school because I can only divide by three; but I ended up on the side of the see-saw in this profession which requires me to assign a time to everything I do.
I charge for my work in bizarre units: tenths of an hour. Six minutes, no more, no less; we don’t do fractions. So, it will not surprise you, I feel certain, when I tell you that writing the preceding paragraphs took me 0.2.
Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that I had spent 0.7 picking manure out of my horses’ paddock. The ride home from the barn took 0.6. Two hours and one tenth elapsed during my annual physical examination.
I caught myself saying to a friend the other day, “It’ll take point six to get there, so I’ll pick you up at 7:15.”
Not only has time-consciousness overwhelmed my life in a subtle, invidious, fashion outside the practice, during work it has become a mild obsession. Because somewhere in Insuranceville, someone is looking at my bills, scratching her head and saying: “It should not take longer than one hour to write a letter describing a deposition.”
That individual, who has heard the word “deposition,” but has never, I suspect, attended one, acquires a fat-pointed, red magic marker from a well-lit, amply stocked supply room. Uncorking the marker, she inscribes a large “x” over the time entry and types a note in a computer log. It states: “excessive time.”
This lightning bolt is mailed to my office manager. The impression that I have been swatted for a urinary transgression is compounded by the fact that because the employees of Insuranceville do not think it should take me more than 1.0 to do this task, they send a check from which payment is deducted for the additional 0.6 hours I expended writing my summary.
This left me, as Ricky Ricardo once said, with some “‘splainin’” to do. It took me 0.3 to write my explanation, and 0.1 to revise it in accordance with the request of one of my partners; that included removing the swear words. All this took 0.4 during which I wasn’t billing time for legitimate endeavors, like filing motions for default or calling to harangue opposing counsel. These lost moments catch up with me at the end of the year, although a shortfall does not jeopardize my standing or my job. It just costs us money.
Scant wonder, then, that I fantasize about devious strategies for making up the deficit on future bills. Consider this possible line item: “Attention to outgoing correspondence.” Translation: “Going to the bathroom.”
Or this catch-all exception to the billable time rule: “Intra-office conference regarding trial strategy.” Read: Excursion to Starbucks for a grande cappuccino.
But there is always something else.
Recently, I got another shot with the rolled-up newspaper from one of our carriers. There was an entry which had been deemed excessive. Precisely 24 minutes had been written off, saving the company a whopping $74.00.
This was bad enough, but there was another item for which we had been docked payment. I charged 0.1, for a telephone call that had taken four minutes and 28 seconds. I looked at the log: the stated reason for the write-down was “Minimal time.”
You can’t win.
Amy Goodusky, a former paralegal, rock ‘n’ roll singer and horseback riding instructor, is counsel to O’Brien, Tanski & Young in Hartford.