How to Handle the Billable Hour

Like many lawyers, I am beholden to the billable hour: a set number of hours I need to bill each year to stay in good standing at my firm and get my bonus. For many attorneys, young and experienced alike, the billable hour is a source of anxiety and one of the biggest complaints about the legal profession. It’s also a common source of the humblebrag: how many times have you heard a colleague “complain” that they’re sooo busy and on track to bill 250 or 300 hours this month, when you know they’re secretly hoping you’re impressed by their high hour count?

Every so often an article comes along promising the end of the billable hour. In my office, it seems pretty clear that it is here to stay. Since much of the stress surrounding the billable hour is tied to a fear that you will miss your yearly target, let’s talk about how to think about the billable hour in a simple way that helps you achieve your yearly goal.

To do that, we need to talk numbers…

Let’s say you need to hit 1900 billable hours per year in order to meet your firm’s goals.

The best way to manage this is to break it up into clear, interim goals.

To illustrate: there are 52 weeks in the year, but you will not be working all of them. (At least I hope not.) So, if your firm gives you 10 days off for holidays (2 weeks) and you receive an additional 20 days of vacation and personal time (4 weeks), you should only account for 46 weeks of actual billing time. You might not take all your vacation time – many lawyers do not – but you should build it into your estimates. Why? If you do want to book a trip, you can do so knowing you do not need to adjust your target.

Time for math: 1900 ÷ 46 = 41.3

This means that you need to bill 41.3 hours per week to hit 1900 for the year. That boils down to a little over 8 hours a day of billed time. If you prefer to think about it on a monthly basis, you need to hit 158.3 hours per month.

At many firms, you are required to enter only 7 hours of time into the billing system. But if that’s the daily target you have in mind, you will always struggle to hit your hours.

Once you have your target in mind, assess your progress on a weekly or monthly basis. Your billing software might do this for you; if not, set a reminder in your calendar. If you need more hours, try to get more work. If you have a significant cushion and no pressing work , go home at a reasonable hour that day or schedule an upcoming vacation. Keeping a regular eye on your target will help alleviate end-of-year panic and even encourage you to take your allotted time off.

One final note: this is a target to hit your minimum hours. At many firms, especially those of the biglaw nature, there is an unspoken expectation that you bill beyond the minimum. Be aware of office norms.

Pic Credit: Pixabay