Faculty Post: BILLABLE HOURS IN YOUR EARLY CAREER

By Professor Daniel A. Austin

Late one afternoon, a few years into my legal career, I heard Partner X mention the “2400-hour years I worked as an associate….” He said this as he was assigning me and another associate a research and drafting project with a next-day deadline. I tossed off his “2400-hour” comment as hyperbole, but nevertheless, we stayed past midnight to finish the work. Not long after that, I happened to pull open a stuck drawer on the built-in file cabinet in my office, and behind the drawer was a sheaf of associate annual billing records from past years. (My office had previously been occupied by a member of the accounting staff.) Unable to resist, I scanned through the list of associates and the hours they had billed. Some of the names were unfamiliar, but others I recognized because they were now partners or “of counsel.” Sure enough, when I looked at the billings for (then) Associate X, there were several years at or just over 2400 hours. In my short career to that point, I had once billed a 200-hour month and it was excruciating. I could not imagine twelve of them in a row, and then repeat for several years.

As you may know, “billable hours” are different from “being at work hours.” Billable hours are not supposed to include taking lunch, bathroom breaks, chatting in the hall, or online browsing. I found that in order to bill eight hours in a day, I had to be at the office about ten hours. With commuting, that usually meant leaving home at 7:00 a.m. and returning around 7:00 p.m., which is a long working day. Fortunately, few if any firms require 2400 billable hours per year. Minimum billable at firms can range between 1650 to 1950 hours per year, with smaller firms tending to require fewer hours. In addition, some shops have an unwritten assumption that ambitious associates will be seen in their office one or more weekends per month. There are even attorneys who, if they leave the office early, will keep their door closed and office lights on, with instructions to their assistants to open doors and turn the lights off when they leave at the end of the day. I recommend against this type of undignified display, but starting out in your career you should be willing to meet the reasonable expectations of your employers, and that will require some sacrifice.

Until you land that first position, your full-time job is… finding a job. Put yourself in the shoes of Associate (now partner) X and start billing.

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