According to the National Association for Law Placement, the average billable time required from a first-year associate is about 1,900 hours per year. 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, they’re going to have to really knock it out of the park as far as meeting the required hours. Those salaries at big law are sweeter than ever with the average salary for first-year associates at a big law firm of $190,000.

Minimum Requirements for Meeting Billable Time

How many hours do 1,892 hours take up a new 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 “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 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. This leads to the question, how long can a first-year associate’s mental health keep up this schedule?

Minding Billable Time

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.

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 they start to fall short, they should find billable work with all due haste.

It’s also worth mentioning here that it is essential that the associate keeps up with their 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 time 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.

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in August 2018. Last update: April 2023.

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