Firm Culture

How Law Firms Drive Associates Crazy

(Part 1 of Many)

Law firms like to encourage their lawyers to produce as many billable hours as possible.  In order to keep the lawyers ‘motivated’, law firms usually set a target number of hours that they expect each lawyer to bill.  Some firms like to set the target at a number which is higher than they expect the lawyers to bill. 

Giving each lawyer a different target would create all sorts of communication issues, so in my experience, the targets are usually the same across a number of lawyers or departments.

Lawyers often struggle to hit their targets due to any number of factors, such as how busy their department is, the type of work that they are doing, their physical and mental health, life events and domestic responsibilities.

Since law firms may know that the targets are too high and that for one reason or another, they may not be met, it would be folly to create a law firm’s financial budget based on the assumption that every lawyer will hit their target. Accordingly, every budgeting exercise in a law firm starts with estimating the billable hours which will be produced by each lawyer, which are typically lower than the published targets.  However, the firm would not want to discourage the lawyers from trying their best to reach the targets, so the lawyers are often not told what is actually expected of them.

So, imagine that you start with a group of competitive over-achievers (which lawyers often are) who due to the length of their schooling, are often hitting the work force shortly before entering long-term relationships and families being started.  You can also imagine that some lawyers are unprepared for the competing demands or for failing to meet expectations.

How does an inexperienced and competitive over-achiever cope with a billable hour target which the firm itself knows they are going to struggle to meet?  They work hard, they sacrifice the time that they would otherwise spend on fitness and personal relationships, and some of them get stressed or turn to substances.  Not all of them suffer, of course, but keep in mind that the billable hour target for the unattached lawyer who does not have children is often the same as the billable hour target for the lawyer who is in a relationship and has significant child-care responsibilities.  You can imagine which one is going to be most stressed and may start thinking about exiting private practice or the profession.

Let me add another complication to this already volatile mix.  Young lawyers are often working under the supervision of more senior lawyers.   The senior lawyers often do not have any real training on how to supervise subordinates.  Some of the senior lawyers are wonderful people who want to take the subordinate by the hand and teach them how to succeed in the profession. 

Some of those senior lawyers have been known to whisper in their subordinate’s ears that the subordinate is not going to reach the billable hours target, but nonetheless everything is going to be okay.  (Whether or not the subordinate believes that in the face of the firm’s announced targets is another matter, but at least the senior lawyer is trying.)

Other senior lawyers, having their eyes only on their own financial success, have been known to be bullies.  I am aware of one senior lawyer who told their subordinate shortly after the subordinate’s family had increased by twins to four children, that if the subordinate could not get all their work done, the subordinate should hire a second nanny to work though the night so that the parents would not have to wake up to feed the twins.  The subordinate eventually left the firm for a great position in a sane environment and the firm lost an excellent lawyer.

It seems to be a principle in many law firms, that all associates are treated ‘equally’. But we all know that ‘equal’ is not the same thing as fair.  There must be a better way, but until a better way is found and implemented across the profession (and do not hold your breath), young lawyers need to be aware of how their firm operates, what the real expectations are of them and whether those expectations are compatible with their personal lives.

4 replies on “How Law Firms Drive Associates Crazy”

There are are two firms in the UK in the “Magic” and “Silver” Circle group (akin to Bay St/White Shoe) that do not have billable hour targets. I happen to work for one of them. Interestingly enough these firms still remain very profitable.

I think each department sets their own.

I am told by the powers that be in my department that “somewhat busy” means 25-30 billable hours a week and “busy” means 30+ billable hours a week.

We also have this interesting concept of “accountable hours” for time spent training and business development. It is the first firm I know of that has broken the billable/nonbillable binary taxonomy of temporal relations.

Years ago our firm created “Firm Hours” and gave people budgets for things like education, administration and business development. However there never seemed to be much of a clear line from working those hours to getting paid something for those hours. People could clearly see the line from billable hours to earnings, so they tended to focus their efforts there.

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