According to the National Association for Law Placement, the average number of billable hours required from a first-year associate is 1,892 hours for the latest year listed, which is 2016. But the average number of billable hours required for first-year associates at firms with more than 700 attorneys is 1,930 hours.
The lesson is that if a first-year associate is going to play, (s)he’s going to have to really knock it out of the park as far as meeting the required hours.
And those salaries at big law are sweeter than ever. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy announced in June that it was increasing its pay rate, setting the bar for its first-year associates at $190,000. Other big law firms followed suit so that most now meet that pay while the rest follow pretty tightly under that figure.
Of course, there is a cost to the associates. Many firms no longer have the option to wait the entire year to determine whether or not an associate will make his billable hours requirement. If within three to six months the associate is not on track, (s)he may be let go.
Another consequence of the high salaries is that the economy will likely drop demand at some point, which will leave a glut of highly paid young attorneys. At that point, layoffs become inevitable.
Midsize and small law firms pretty much have the same issues with pay scales and billable hours but on a less dramatic stage and the cast of characters.
Minimum Requirements For Meeting The Standard Billable Hours
How many hours do 1,892 hours take up a young attorney’s life? Yale Law developed a chart that gave reasonable amounts of actual time spent for 1,800 billable hours and 2,200 billable hours. The chart accounts for vacations, coffee breaks, conference times and even chit-chat – all those activities that take up an attorney’s time but are not billable.
To achieve 1,800 billable hours, an associate would work her “regular” hours plus an extra 20 minutes Monday through Friday, or work one Saturday each month from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The first option would give an attorney 1,832 billable hours, with a total of 2,430 hours spent “at work” (AKA: including performing non-billable activities.). The second option would give an attorney 1,834 billable hours with a total of 2,434 have actually worked.
To achieve 2,200 billable hours, an associate would work from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. each day, added to two Saturdays per month from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., which still would leave the associate a bit short. So add another Saturday for 10 months. That gives the attorney 2,201 billable hours. The attorney will have worked 3,058 hours.
This schedule seems daunting. But for an attorney who just finished the grueling marathon of law school and then topped it off with studying for the bar, it really doesn’t seem quite so bad. But this leads to the question, how long can a body keep up this schedule?
Minding Billable Hours
Adam Pascarella, in an article offering advice to junior associates, listed determining your goals as the first order of business when deciding to work for big law. There are a couple of scenarios. If she plans to stay and make partner, then she must go above and beyond the required billable hours in addition to out-performing in other law firm areas. Furthermore, the hours only get longer as she moves up the ladder to partnership status.
So the answer to that question of longevity – in terms of keeping up with a big law schedule – is that the junior associate must maintain the schedule throughout her career.
If, on the other hand, a junior associate’s long-term goal is to work long enough to pay law school debt and add a great looking “goody” to her resumé, then she can look forward to a time of living a bit less stressful attorney life.
Pascarella also offers great advice when he points out the critical task of minding billable hours. Take the total number of required hours per year and divide it by twelve. The result is an associate’s monthly goal. The associate must make sure to stay on track. If he starts to fall short, he should find billable work with all due haste.
It’s also worth mentioning here that it is essential that he keeps up with his timesheet. No one wants to get caught two weeks later trying to remember what he was doing two weeks in the past. An attorney’s time is valuable! With PracticePanther, it’s never been so easy to track time.
First-year associates will probably count Billable Hours instead of sheep while trying to fall asleep. It’s just not something that will go away and quite possibly haunts the minds of several newly minted attorneys while trying to get a good night’s rest. But the hoops of billable hours are manageable. A first-year associate just has to decide in the beginning how much the chase for the golden ring is worth, and go from there.