The billable hour: demanding, disparaged and now dead – at least at one Atlanta-based law firm.

Ford & Harrison, a 190-attorney labor and employment firm, has tossed out billable hour requirements for first-year associates. The program aims to close the practical-skills gap of law school education and increase value to clients. The firm also hopes it will enable associates to handle meatier matters more quickly.

Overall, Ford & Harrison’s leaders expect the new program to help retain beginning lawyers and appease clients.

“Everyone sits around and complains about the problems,” said C. Lash Harrison, managing partner of the law firm. “I figured, what the heck, maybe we can try something.”

The idea is for associates to spend their time observing depositions and witness interviews and attending hearings and litigation strategy meetings. While the firm has no specific expectations of associates meeting the 1,900 billable hours it previously required from new attorneys, it does anticipate that some of the work they undertake during their first 15 or so months will be valuable enough to bill.

Laurie Hartman, assistant dean for the Office of Career Services at Emory University School of Law, said that she was not aware of any other sizeable law firms that had completely done away with billables for new associates.

“It’s a great idea,” she said, adding that the program would help students to differentiate Ford & Harrison from other law firms.

Forward Thinking

Ford & Harrison, which has 18 locations, pays first-year attorneys $125,000 in its larger offices. Although the Year One program could entice top students who otherwise would take jobs at elite firms that pay the going first-year rate of $160,000, the high cost of legal education is still a huge factor in their selection, Hartman said.

The decision to make the change required some forward thinking, Harrison said. His biggest concern was presenting partners with an idea that initially would bring in less money.

“The key is trying to do something that appears to have a chance of working without breaking the bank,” he said, adding that it will take a few years to see the full benefits of Year One.

Most partners liked the concept, he said, and saw it as a way to eliminate all the hand-wringing – and time – involved in determining which hours worked by associates are valuable enough to bill. Partners also saw the long-term payoff of training new lawyers to become profitable sooner in their careers, he said.

But whether Ford & Harrison’s program can transfer to larger law firms is unclear.

“It’s an interesting approach, and perhaps we’ll all learn something from it,” said Frank Burch, joint chief executive officer of 3,333-attorney DLA Piper. “That said, smaller firms can do things informally that larger firms approach more systematically.”

Harrison said he has kicked around the idea of eliminating first-year hires altogether and instead meeting business demands with lateral hiring. But that approach creates a “two-pronged problem,” he said.

“You have to undo all the bad habits they’ve learned and you have to train them in good habits. It’s better off to go ahead and make the investment on the front end,” he said.

Ford & Harrison typically hires 12 to 15 associates each year, said Meg Holman, an attorney and the firm’s director of professional development. This fall, however, it needs only six associates, which will make the implementation of the program easier, she said.

The medical school approach, in which students gain practical skills experience from working as interns and residents, served as the model for the firm’s program.