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Mary Jaclyn Cook spent nearly two weeks last December in Hawaii, getting married and honeymooning in the Pacific paradise. All the while, she knew she was short on hours.

At the end of November, the then second-year associate with Faegre Baker Daniels in Denver was 368 hours shy of the firm’s annual 1,850-hour expectation for associates. Work had been slow in the Rocky Mountain outpost’s product liability practice, and wedding planning had taken its toll. A November meeting with her boss had failed to quell Cook’s fear that she would be fired if she missed the target.

On Jan. 3, 2017, when time logs were due, Cook wrote 60 entries totaling 135.7 hours. Thanks to the help of a December in which she billed more than 12 hours every day, despite her travel, Cook managed to end the year about an eight-hour workday over her firm’s expected hours for associates.

If only it were true.

This month, Cook and the Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel agreed to a nine-month suspension from the practice of law for the now former Faegre Baker Daniels associate. In a stipulation with the disciplinary board, Cook admitted to inflating and fabricating time entries totaling nearly 140 hours, worth nearly $40,000. The firm never collected the money, having noticed Cook’s unusually high hourly totals in December before most of its bills went out to clients. She resigned from the firm in January.

In her stipulation, Cook took responsibility for her misconduct and expressed regret, stating that she is “gravely embarrassed” by the episode.

“As someone who has excelled her entire life and set high expectations for herself, words cannot express her feelings of shame and regret,” Cook said in her stipulation. Neither Cook nor her lawyer—Alec Rothrock of Burns, Figa & Will—returned requests for comment.

Michael Frisch, an ethics expert and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said that while there is no excuse for overbilling, Cook’s tale is symptomatic of the billable hour pressures that associates face and the inherent conflict they create within firms, their lawyers and clients.

“The whole idea of targeting billable hours, saying an attorney must work ‘X’ number of hours to stay employed, doesn’t encourage efficiency and it doesn’t encourage the most cost-conscious use of attorneys’ services for clients,” said Frisch, who spent 17 years as a grievance prosecutor for the District of Columbia’s Court of Appeals. “And that’s been widely recognized in the profession.”

Mary Jaclyn Cook

Yet billable hour requirements exist virtually across the board in Big Law. With the average third-year associate at an Am Law 200 firm last year billing 2,005 hours per year, according to the 2017 American Lawyer Midlevel Associate Survey, Cook may find scant sympathy among her harried peers.

And while hourly requirements on their own may be a fact of life for Big Law associates, survey responses to The American Lawyer show that young lawyers from many firms feel uncertain about what the billing expectations actually mean.

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