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The Grind of Big Law: Exploring the Reasons Behind Attorneys' Long Hours and High Billable Targets

published March 16, 2023

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The Grind of Big Law: Exploring the Reasons Behind Attorneys' Long Hours and High Billable Targets

Partners in large law firms may become “zombies,” working long hours without taking breaks to remain productive and competitive. This career phase is typical in the legal industry and can lead to feeling expendable and exploited by their firm. To avoid entering this phase, attorneys should take regular breaks, invest in marketing and business development, prioritize tasks, and develop client relationships. By doing so, attorneys can maintain their productivity and avoid becoming expendable in the legal industry.
Questions Answered In This Article
  • What are the signs of entering "the zombie phase"?
    Signs of entering the zombie phase include picking up any phone call assuming it is billable time, joining organizations or writing articles based on their potential to bring in new business, and measuring self-worth based on the prestige of their current firm.
  • How can attorneys avoid entering the zombie phase?
    Attorneys can avoid entering the zombie phase by taking regular breaks and vacations, developing client relationships, investing in marketing and business development, and organizing and prioritizing tasks.
  • What implications does the zombie phase have for the legal industry?
    The zombie phase has several implications for the legal industry, including the exploitation of partners in large law firms and higher transaction costs due to complex organizational structures.
  • What is the attorneys' primary benefit from working in a prestigious firm?
    Attorneys may feel privileged to work in a prestigious firm and gain prestige from being associated with it. This can lead to increased confidence and a feeling of importance.
  • How can attorneys rebuild their identities as creative problem solvers?
    Attorneys can rebuild their identity as creative problem solvers by getting to know each client, investing in marketing and business development, creating systems to help them stay on top of deadlines and prioritize tasks, and balancing work and self-care. Developing client relationships can also help build trust and rapport that will last long-term.
Attorneys in large law firms work hard and bill many hours for various reasons. For clients, their attorneys must work extremely hard on their matters to protect them from errors, which could cost them millions, if not tens of millions of dollars. This is why clients expect their attorneys to work long hours, even if it means higher bills.

Moreover, law firms need attorneys to bill many hours for their partners' salaries, expensive staff, and offices. Law firms typically hire people with a history of working hard and high achievement to attract and retain the best attorneys. Attorneys are also competitive with each other for hours, which is the only source of value they have to offer, especially when they are young associates.

In large law firms, the entire ecosystem is structured to make everyone work as hard as they are capable of working and billing as much as they can. Attorneys in large law firms often work long hours, and if they stop billing, everything stops, and they may lose their job.

Large corporate clients are willing to pay attorneys to work long hours and are not as sensitive to bills and hours as smaller firms. Smaller law firms typically work for clients that are very sensitive to billable hours and only have the time to go into a lot of detail and issues.

Attorneys in large law firms work hard and bill so many hours to protect their clients from errors, retain clients and attract new ones, pay for their salaries and expenses, and stay competitive with each other. While it can be demanding, it is part of the culture of large law firms and what clients expect from their attorneys.

The Legal Industry: How Big Firms and Big Clients Dominate the Game

Big firms and clients with the resources to pay for top-quality legal services often dominate the legal industry. This dynamic often leaves smaller firms and less affluent clients at a disadvantage.

Here are some interesting bullet points to consider when exploring this topic further:
  • Big clients, generating billions of dollars in revenue, often have millions of dollars to spend on legal services each month.
  • Prestigious firms are willing to take on lots of legal work from these big clients, sometimes without much analysis or review, which can result in overbilling.
  • Associates working in these big firms may feel overworked, writing endless memos or working on litigation that makes no sense. Still, it doesn't always matter to the partner originating the client.
  • The bigger the law firm and the better the attorney, the better deals they can get, often leaving smaller law firms struggling to compete.
  • Small firms may not have the resources to outwork larger firms, so they have to outthink the other side and be aware that they may be taken advantage of.
  • Large firms have the time and resources to research little points, write outstanding briefs, and insert language that benefits their side.
  • Big clients may even hire private judges or go to arbitration to get work from big firms, leaving smaller firms with fewer opportunities.
  • The legal industry can be a difficult and sometimes unfair game, but knowing the rules can help smaller firms and less affluent clients succeed.

The Brainwashing and Belief System of Large Law Firms

Large law firms are known for their high standards of work and specialized expertise, which comes from a rigorous training process involving a certain level of brainwashing and a belief system deeply ingrained in the associates and partners. This belief system dictates that an attorney's self-worth is tied to their work and must work as hard as possible to avoid errors and provide the best work product possible.

The brainwashing phase of this training can last anywhere from three to 12 years, during which new attorneys feel utterly worthless if they are not constantly working and billing hours. Their self-esteem becomes tied to their work, and they begin to feel guilty if they are not working or developing a business. The zombie phase follows, during which partners become almost unrecognizable as their work consumes their personalities.

This brainwashing process is not unique to the legal profession; similar processes occur in other professions, such as medicine, religion, and athletics. However, this process is particularly intense in the legal profession, as attorneys are expected to work long hours and provide perfect work products for high-stakes cases and transactions.

The large law firms that train their associates and partners this way have a belief system emphasizing hard work, attention to detail, and high standards. Clients who pay top dollar for legal services expect nothing less than the best work possible, and large law firms deliver by creating a culture of excellence and specialization.

Large law firms' brainwashing and belief systems are key factors in their success and reputation for providing high-quality legal services. While this process may not be for everyone, it is necessary for those who wish to succeed in this competitive field.

The legal profession is often viewed as a prestigious and highly respected field. However, the reality for young attorneys working in large law firms can be quite different. These firms often rely on a brainwashing system to cultivate a sense of loyalty and commitment among their associates.

One of the primary mechanisms used in this process is the emphasis on billable hours. Associates are often rewarded with positive feedback and recognition for long hours, creating a culture where overworking becomes the norm. This pressure to bill more hours can also create a sense of competition among associates, leading to overwork and burnout.

Another form of brainwashing that young attorneys often experience is the constant criticism and scrutiny of their work. Partners may go out of their way to find flaws in their work and tear them down, creating a sense of paranoia and insecurity among associates. This behavior is often seen as a rite of passage in the legal profession, but it can emotionally and mentally damage young lawyers.

Bonuses and rewards are also tied to billable hours, creating a sense of competition among associates. Those who work the hardest and bill the most hours are often given more work and more opportunities for advancement. This system can lead to favoritism and a lack of diversity among the ranks of partners.

Ultimately, this brainwashing creates a culture in which young attorneys are willing to sacrifice everything for their jobs, believing that hard work and dedication will lead to partnership and success. The reality, however, is that most attorneys will never make partners and will eventually leave the firm after years of extreme overwork.

While some attorneys thrive in this environment, others are drained by it. The pressure to conform and fit into the mold of a successful lawyer can be overwhelming, and those who don't fit the mold may be encouraged to pursue other careers. Young attorneys need to understand the reality of working in a large law firm and make informed decisions about their future.

Navigating the Path to Partnership in Large Law Firms: What It Takes to Succeed
Navigating the path to partnership in large law firms can be challenging and often daunting. Success requires a combination of hard work, dedication, and strategic planning. Here are some key takeaways to help you succeed:

1. Stick around: The people who make partners often stick around and don't leave. It's not always the smartest thing to leave and often the dumbest.
2. It's not just about billable hours: Becoming a partner in a large law firm has much more to do with other things than just the hours you bill. It can be about your personality, how you represent the firm, and your ability to bring in business in the future.
3. The importance of looking and acting the part: Looking and acting like a firm representative is crucial to becoming a partner. It's important to dress well, look professional, and be someone the firm wants to hire.
4. Hours matter: Although becoming a partner is not solely based on billable hours, they play a significant role. Building up many hours early can help set you apart from other associates.
5. Prejudice against younger attorneys: Law firms tend to be prejudiced against younger attorneys. They like third, fourth, and fifth years, three or four years away from the partnership.
6. Expectations and sacrifice: Large law firms expect their attorneys to work long, grueling hours, often sacrificing their social life and family. The expectations are high, and knowing what you're getting into is essential.
7. Brainwashed attorneys: Many attorneys in large law firms have been brainwashed to believe that working long hours and sacrificing everything is the only way to succeed. It's crucial to stay grounded and remember that other options exist.
8. Leaving a law firm: Leaving a law firm can be risky. Although some attorneys leave and find success elsewhere, many find that the law firm is no longer a good fit for them.


The Importance of Attention to Detail and Perfectionism in the Legal Profession

Attention to detail and perfectionism are essential traits for success in the legal profession. While it may seem obvious, the importance of these qualities cannot be overstated. In the fast-paced world of law, even the smallest mistake can have disastrous consequences. That's why law firms train their attorneys to be meticulous and precise in everything they do.

The fear of making mistakes drives many young attorneys to work long hours, pouring over every assignment to ensure that it is as close to perfect as possible. This perfectionism is instilled in them from the beginning of their legal careers, with partners constantly reminding them to pay more attention to detail and be more thorough in their work.

While this may seem like a burden, it is a critical skill for success in the legal profession. Clients expect their attorneys to produce work that is flawless and to be able to catch even the smallest errors. Attorneys who can do this are highly valued and in great demand.

Of course, this level of perfectionism can also be a double-edged sword. Attorneys too focused on getting everything exactly right may become paralyzed by indecision or miss important deadlines because they are still trying to perfect their work.

That's why it's important to strike a balance between attention to detail and efficiency. Attorneys need to be able to work quickly and efficiently while still maintaining a high level of accuracy. This is easier said than done, but it's a skill that can be learned with practice.

Ultimately, the legal profession cannot overstate the importance of attention to detail and perfectionism. While it can be challenging to maintain this level of focus and precision, those who can do so will be highly valued by their firms and clients alike. So if you're considering a career in law, make sure you're prepared to put in the hard work and dedication required to excel in this demanding field.

The Billable Hour: Navigating the Demands and Pressures of Working in a Large Law Firm

The billable hour is a standard measurement used in large law firms to track the actual time lawyers spend on a particular client's case or matter. The more hours a lawyer bills, the more money the firm makes. This has created a culture of overwork and pressure, with associates expected to bill thousands of hours a year and long working hours, including all-nighters.

However, billing hours are not just about quantity but also about quality. Lawyers are expected to produce high-quality work, and mistakes can be costly. Therefore, working hard and seeking work are crucial for success in a large law firm.

The pressure to bill hours and maintain a high level of productivity can lead to a loss of freedom and independence for lawyers, especially as they accumulate expenses like buying a house or starting a family. This can create a dependency on the firm, making it difficult to leave and potentially leading to a loss of personal identity.

Navigating the demands and pressures of working in a large law firm requires balancing productivity and self-care. Associates must prioritize their health and well-being while meeting the firm's expectations. Developing good relationships with partners and clients, creating work, and seeking new opportunities can help build a successful career in a large law firm.

The Zombie Phase: How Partners in Large Law Firms Become Expendable Billing Machines

The "zombie phase" refers to the stage in an attorney's career where they become a billing machine for their law firm, often after becoming a partner. In this phase, the attorney may prioritize billing hours over other aspects, such as business development or client relationships.

Zombies are usually highly valued for their ability to quickly produce high-quality work. But over time, this can lead to burnout and a lack of creativity or innovation in the attorney's practice. In addition, clients may start to feel that they are receiving less personal service than promised when they hired the firm.

The following are the usual signs that an attorney has reached the "zombie phase":
  • Working long hours and having little free time.
  • Overly focused on billable hours rather than building relationships or developing new business.
  • Increasing frustration with clients and a decline in their satisfaction ratings.
  • A decrease in creative problem-solving skills and not being in touch with the latest developments in their field.
The zombie phase can be avoided by taking the necessary steps to stay current and productive. Partners should prioritize building relationships with clients, expanding their network, and developing new skills and strategies to help them remain competitive. Taking breaks from billable hours is also important to re-energize and maintain morale. With a little effort, partners in large law firms can maintain their productivity and avoid becoming expendable.

The following are what a "zombie phase lawyer" in large law firms may experience, as well as its implications for the legal industry:
  • Attorneys in the zombie phase may pick up the phone for any call, assuming it is billable time.
  • Zombies may join organizations or write articles based on their potential to bring new business.
  • Self-worth for zombies may come from comparing themselves to attorneys at lesser firms.
  • The fear of losing the prestige of their current firm may prevent zombies from considering job opportunities at a less prestigious firm.
  • The law firm's brand can be more important than the individual attorney to clients.
  • The zombie phase is a common career path for attorneys in large law firms, but not all attorneys follow this path.
  • The exploitation of partners in large law firms is a systemic issue affecting the legal industry.
Partners in large law firms may feel particularly expendable, as they know the firm can easily replace them if necessary. They may also feel exploited by the firm, as they are paid as little as possible for their work while being expected to work as hard as possible.

Zombies rely on the firm's brand for prestige and measure their self-worth based on that brand. They may feel privileged to work in a prestigious firm and may be unwilling to consider working at a less prestigious firm.

Clients may be attracted to a law firm based on its brand rather than the individual attorney. This means that zombies may believe clients will come to them because of the firm's reputation rather than their abilities.

Transaction costs can be high in a large law firm, as attorneys must navigate complex organizational structures and may be required to obtain approval from multiple layers of management for even minor decisions.

The following steps can help attorneys avoid entering the "zombie phase":

• Take regular breaks and vacations: Taking time away from work to rest and recharge is important.
• Develop relationships with clients: Taking the time to get to know each client will help build a sense of trust and rapport that will last long-term.
• Invest in marketing and business development: A strong marketing plan can help attract new clients.
• Get organized and prioritize tasks: Create a system to help you stay on top of deadlines, track progress, and prioritize tasks.

These steps can help attorneys rebuild their identity as creative problem solvers rather than expendable billing machines. By balancing work and self-care, attorneys can find long-term success in the legal profession.

The zombie phase can be challenging for partners in large law firms, who may feel pressure to bill as many lawyer hours as possible and maintain the prestige of the firm's brand.

See Harrison Barnes discuss this article in full by watching the webinar replay. Click this link to watch it now!

published March 16, 2023

( 20 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.