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How to Deal with the Billable Hour System at a Law Firm

published January 22, 2021

By Author - LawCrossing

( 152 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)

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A lot of law firms work with the billable hour system. In other words, an associate will record every minute of their time they spend working for a client. This bill is then sent to that client to be paid. Of course, an associate's pay by the hour will vary depending on the law firm they work for, their qualifications, and the years of experience they have. Whether you are offering legal advice to a client or completing documents for them, this is all going to be billed. Indeed, you can make a lot of money through the billable hour system.

But the big question is; how many hours can an associate handle before they reach breaking point? Law firms have a delicate balancing act that they need to work on to get it right. For instance, if the associates take on too few hours with clients, this will mean a lot of money is lost. However, if there are too many hours, associates will prematurely leave their post and move on. Again, this costs the law firm money. This is where an office manager comes in. They are going to be the people tasked with finding this balance so that everybody can win.

A lot of people believe that billing 200 hours a month is manageable. Thinking about it, that is 2400 hours a year. We are talking about a lot of hours every week dedicated to difficult work that is testing and demanding. Partners in a law firm may only look at this number and not think about what it is like for associates on a day-to-day basis. While something can be pitched as a small project, it can often turn out into a larger one later down the line. For those trying to make up their billing hours, a small project can soon turn into a nightmare. A partner can pitch some legal research as only taking around five to 10 hours to complete. Associates can take this on because they feel they cannot say no, and they are trying to make up their billable hours. But it often means sacrificing their free time. The time they need to recharge after a long week.
Putting Your Mental Health First
One thing that we cannot avoid is the mental health problem that exists in the legal industry. Many professionals endure years of hard work to gain their qualifications and make it in the sector. Once they have a job, it means long hours and sometimes not a lot of rewards. Indeed, the billable hour system can contribute to poor mental health for a lot of associates. You can start to judge your success based on merely the number of hours you bill, with law firms setting difficult targets. It can mean ignoring the quality of work and what you can actually achieve with clients. It becomes a numbers game.
Law associates have to put their mental health first. Of course, billing hours is going to be necessary. It is not something you can simply ignore. But you mustn't tie this to your self-worth. Here are some ways you can deal with the billable hour system and ensure your mental health does not suffer simultaneously.
Realize the Impact You Are Making
Unfortunately, despite the negative impact the billable hour system can have on a lot of lawyers, it is unlikely to be going away anytime soon. So, you are going to have to adapt and learn that this could be the way of life in the legal industry for the foreseeable future. But it is time to think about the system in another way. In particular, you need to concentrate on the impact you are having daily, not just the number of hours you are billing.
Sometimes associates feel they have had an unproductive day if the hours they bill are less than nine. This will involve a lot of negative emotions that can affect you for the rest of the week. Instead, take a step back and think about the impact you have made that day for a client. Some things cannot be calculated by hours. Thinking about the positives and useful things you have done that day can help you move on. Every day is a new day.
Stay Efficient with a To-Do List
Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. When you have a lot to do in a day, it is easy to get lost in your thoughts. You can forget about tasks and not be aware of your achievements that day. But with a detailed to-do list, you can become more efficient and manage your time better.
Start each day by preparing your to-do list. Define what you need to complete today so that you know the direction to start with. In other words, list all the tasks that you must do before you can go home. Throughout the day, you can check off the tasks that you complete. Not only does this motivate you to keep going, but it can also mean that you acknowledge your achievements. This encouragement is often missing from your day. You will be surprised how this acknowledgment can inspire you during working hours.
Take Breaks No Matter How Busy You Are
A common misconception is that you must busy at all times to be productive. In fact, this is often a way to procrastinate and to burn out fast. You must acknowledge that you cannot work for nine to 12 hours straight. While you may think that skipping your lunch break will allow you to catch up, this is not always the case. In fact, it can mean that your concentration fades away at another point in the day.
Therefore, no matter how busy you are, always make time for breaks. You need short intervals to take a breath, relax, and re-evaluate your day. It is not possible to always be busy and productive at the same time. Having a 10-minute coffee break or speaking to a colleague can be just what you need to lower your stress levels and be ready to get back to work. You need to ensure when you are working, you are productive. Breaks can relieve some of your anxiety and allow you to do this. Do not deprive yourself of small breaks away from your desk during the day.
Eliminate All Distractions
Hopefully, you have acknowledged that you have to enjoy breaks during the working day. Of course, you want to meet your billing targets. This means that you have to do your best to ensure the hours you are working you are getting as much done as possible. In particular, we know that a lot of legal tasks can be tedious and time-consuming. You need to do your best to eliminate any potential distractions that will allow you to procrastinate or slow down your workload. You will benefit from deep focus spells, which is when you will do your best work.
When it comes to eliminating distractions, everyone is going to work differently. For instance, you might think you are more productive when listening to calming music, while others will prefer silence. Either way, most people will benefit from shutting down their emails for a while and ignoring their mobile phones. Every time a text or an email comes through, this will break your concentration and distract you. So, when they are not popping up in the background, you can focus on one task until it is finished. While many people assume multitasking gets more done in a day, this is often not the case.
Avoid Burnout Now and Meet Your Targets
The sooner you acknowledge that the billable hour system is not going anywhere, the better you will be. It is not about trying to abolish the system and change your law firm. It is about how to cope on a daily basis and avoid the inevitable burnout that occurs when you do not focus on your mental health.
Every law firm is going to set a billing hour target for you. But try not to get lost in the numbers game. Instead, focus on what you can do every day to not only survive but also to thrive. Concentrate on the impact you can have and how you are helping clients. Create your to-do list and motivate yourself every day. Always take breaks and reset your headspace. Eliminate all of the distractions around you so that you can bill more time and create quality work. The old saying is true when it comes to law firms. It is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about learning how to dance in the rain.