Law firms give lawyers minimum billable hours targets to meet. There is nothing wrong with setting expectations, I guess. The theory is that you make the lawyers aware of the firm’s expectations, and they then work to achieve them. Transparency is good.
I am sure that this system works well in some firms and for some lawyers. However, I have good reason to believe that it does not work all that well in many firms and for many lawyers.
This system has numerous small problems and one really big problem. Let’s start with a few of the small problems.
The Small Problems
- Many junior associates are not expected to bring in business. They are reliant on work being delegated to them. When there is not enough work being delegated to them, they cannot meet their targets. However, law firms are not good at telling these lawyers that they do not have to live in fear of not meeting their targets if there is not enough work.
- Virtually every law firm sets minimum targets, but almost none of them set maximum targets. (I know that some of you probably choked or at least scoffed at the mention of ‘maximums,’ but rest assured, it’s a thing and they are coming, albeit not anytime soon to Big Law.) Everyone knows that some lawyers exceed their targets, and those lawyers are usually celebrated. So, even lawyers who do meet their targets are often nervous about not exceeding their targets. Sometimes lawyers fear that the official target is simply the minimum that they have to do to avoid being fired. As for how many hours they have to bill to be successful, nobody knows. Billing more than most of the other associates seems to be the real standard. Some firms publish those numbers to make the associates compete with each other. Others do not, so associates have to rely on the rumour mill. Either way, the known target may be irrelevant.
- Law firms like to treat everyone equally. Men, women, pregnant women, lawyers with young children, lawyers with older children, lawyers without children, lawyers taking care of aging parents, lawyers with physical, emotional, and psychological challenges, you name it; they all get the same target. That leaves many stressed out people worrying about whether they can meet their targets and what will happen to them if they don’t.
- As for what will happen to lawyers who do not meet their targets, in many law firms no one seems to know. Maybe they will not get a raise or a bonus. Maybe they will be fired. Maybe they will be kept off of the partnership track. Not knowing makes people nervous. Since nervous people may not perform at their optimal level, it is counterproductive to keep them in a state of anxiety.
The Really Big Problem
There is one really big problem with billable hours targets which no one in law firms ever talks about, which is that it is not particularly clear what the purpose of the targets is. And just to be clear, I am not talking about the necessary exercise of establishing production estimates for the purpose of budgeting and establishing compensation. I am talking about targets given to lawyers to meet.
Many people think that the purpose of the target is to make lawyers work the stipulated number of hours. If so, I don’t think that it works very well. Let’s take some examples:
- I will start with myself. I never paid any attention to the stipulated target. I worked like hell to meet my client’s expectations. When there was lots of work, I exceeded the target. When there was a dearth of work, I fell short of the target. I never did figure out what the target had to do with anything.
- I knew lawyers who routinely exceeded the billable hour target because they put their work ahead of everything else in their lives, including physical and mental health, and relationships. The published target was pretty much irrelevant to them as well.
- On the other hand, I also knew lawyers who never made their targets, because they insisted on having a life. Social engagements, vacations and fitness came first. Billable hours came next. The required target never changed their behaviour.
- I also saw lawyers who had young children and no target was going to make them spend less time with them than was necessary or that they believed was appropriate.
- I met very few lawyers who met their billable hour targets only because the firm expected them to. Don’t get me wrong – I met plenty of lawyers who sacrificed their health, spouses, and children to work, but those people (including myself, regrettably) did it because something inside of them drove them to ‘achieve’ or to ‘succeed,’ not because their firm had set a billable hours target.
It is my belief that billings targets have little effect on changing the number of hours that a lawyer is going to devote to their practice. That is determined by the individual’s personal circumstances and value system. How much they care about their ego, their professional standing and reputation, developing a client base, money, their clients, their health, their spouse, and their children will drive how hard they are willing, or able, to work.
I only see two things that having billable hours targets achieves.
First, they influence the degree to which lawyers under pressure to meet the standard misstate their hours, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Second, they serve as a guidepost which lawyers can and should use to decide whether to join a firm or to leave a firm. For example, if you are a young parent who cannot cope with all of the demands on your time, the billable hours target is a useful guidepost as to whether it is time to get out and find a firm with a less demanding target or to exit private practice altogether. Sadly, many lawyers ignore the guidepost and spend years being anxious and unhealthy because they are constantly getting the message that they are failing.
What firms should do is proclaim their billable hour targets, develop robust policies as to any applicable exceptions and announce the consequences of not meeting the targets. They should then offer training to those who want to meet the targets but are unable to do so because of poor time management or docketing skills.
For those who cannot make the targets even after training, firms should implement the stated consequences, such as reducing lawyer salaries, denying partnership admission, or redirecting their career paths. Then, they should leave everyone alone and stop torturing them. Lawyers, on the other hand, should study the policies and decide whether they want to achieve the targets or accept the consequences of not meeting them. Often, they should vote with their feet and get the hell out.
I cannot tell you how many times I met young lawyers who were working days, nights, and weekends, but who had what law firms like to call a ‘docketing problem’ such that their recorded time did not reflect the amount of time that they spent at the office. Sometimes that was because they were working on non-billable tasks, sometimes it was because their supervising lawyers had told them not to docket their time, and often it was because they were ‘self-editing’ their dockets because they were embarrassed about how long it was taking them to do things. Frequently, they had just not developed the discipline to accurately record their time.
In those pre-Covid days, they would occasionally seek reassurance from each other or slightly less junior firm members by asking, “the partners see us here all of the time, so they know how hard we are working, even if it does not show up in our dockets, right?” The answer to this question being, oh so sad for the hard working but naïve neophytes was, “NO! If your time does not show up in the accounting software, then as far as the partners are concerned, you might as well be on a beach in the Caribbean. No, it does not count. Not at all. No, the firm does not care if you seem to be in the office all of the time and you are sacrificing your health and family to do your best at the office. Learn to docket or you are going to get yourself fired.”