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Hours : Targets, Expectations and Consequences

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Hi all, how much do you work?

 

That's a broad question, so I will try to break it down. 

For private practice, I've always been told that you're doing alright if 2/3rds of the time you spend in the office is billable - so 12 hours in the office is 8 billed hours. I'm wondering, for associates:

1. What is your billable target?

2. Is the actual expectation for billable hours more or less than the target? 

3. What happens if you do or don't hit target?

4. How many nonbillable hours do you do and does anyone care?

5. If there are particular circumstances that would change your answer from others in your peers, like BigLaw, practice area, or level of experience, can you tell us (without giving anything revealing away, obviously)?

 

I don't even know what questions to ask for in house or government lawyers, but would be interested in hearing from you too!

 

For my part, my BigLaw firm has a target of 1700 - and if I do not meet my target, I would not get a bonus, and the annual increase would be on the lower end of our grid. Firing might be imminent or resignation suggested if I was substantially below target. 

There is a target of 150 nonbillable hours, but no one seems to really care or emphasize them very much. 

No extenuating circumstances for me - I'm a midlevel associate at a Biglaw firm.

 

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I'm in house now, so my experience in the firm is about 4 years old. I had a target of 1750. I met it sometimes and came close sometimes. I never got any sort of bonus, but always got the usual salary increase on the grid. I don't care about a bonus, so that didn't bother me. In my annual performance review, which was mostly a joke, I was always told that was fine.

I usually billed around 200-300 non-billable hours. Part of that was because I was really good at writing short articles for twitter, blog, website, etc. so a lot of partners asked me to do that for them. I enjoyed that work, so didn't mind that I probably did more than other associates.

I usually worked from 9 to around 6:30-7:00 with necessary upwards adjustments when files heated up, and downwards adjustments when we settled stuff.

Now I'm in house, no one cares how many hours I might bill, and we're pressuring all of our clients to go to flat fee billing so they don't care either.

 

Edited by Jaggers
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I'm a junior IP associate in a Big Law firm. 

Target is 1800hrs - 100 non-billable. It is absolutely expected that you hit both of those the targets.

I've spoken about this topic with many of my colleagues who practice in areas other than IP. My perception (which may be incorrect) is that there is a higher hourly retention in IP. What I mean by that is it seems to me that more of my hours are billable than my non-IP colleagues. I tend to work from 730-6 and if I don't go to the washroom and eat at my desk it is highly likely that all of those hours are billable. Normally I do leave my desk though, so if I'm in the office for 10 hours then I bill 8-9 of them.  

This means that myself and my colleagues generally do not have a problem hitting the target. Currently we're 1/3 of the year in and I'm already 60 hours over (and I've already taken 1.5 weeks vacation). I'm also already over on non-billable hours (if you do any CLE or business development stuff it goes towards this so they are quite easy to get). 

Last year a first year associate (who started in the summer) did not quite hit her pro-rated target and she still received a 10% pro-rated bonus, but also had a stern talking to about making sure she hits it this year.

I also started last summer and was a 100 hours (pro-rated) over the billable target and received a 20% bonus. I have another colleague who was 300 hours over the target - I have no idea what his bonus was but I know a few weeks later he had bought a very new, very fancy high-end vehicle.   

Edited by TheScientist101
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My experience is different. I'm at a small crim/family firm. I don't have a fixed hourly rate as I accept legal aid certificates (109/hour), have "regular cash" clients at my usual rate, and a flex rate (between legal aid and my usual rate) for those people who earn too much to qualify for legal aid (25-45k income). I bill by hour and not block fee as my crim colleagues do. 

My target is double my salary + overhead (software, insurance, mortgage, assistant and the like). Months with more private files generally mean fewer billables needed. 

I manage the above with 8:30-5 days with some weekend work. I aim for 5+ billables per day. Some days are better than others depending if I have court. Non court days can be profitable as I am document drafting and client managing.

Edited by artsydork
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I’m at a mid sized boutique. Billable target is 1680. Expectation is to hit it. If you don’t, no bonus. Also risk being pushed out if it’s a continuous issue. I typically work about 10 hours a day Monday to Friday, and have always exceeded target easily.

No target for non billables, but I typically do around 150. The type matters - ie more weight is given to non billables that are directed at bringing in new work yourself (ie client lunches, etc) then just tagging along to an event organized by the firm. Non billables are taken into account as part of bonus, but I certainly know people who do barely any.

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Since you're asking for different perspectives, my approach is way different than the others in this thread. I'm a partner/owner in a small firm with a few other partner/owners.

This is what we do: we add up the yearly expenses to run our firm. The big ones are rent and salaries/benefits for assistants, articling students etc. but there are also phone, internet, fax, office supplies etc. We divide that between all of us. We give a discount to our managing partner for the time he spends on admin tasks and redistribute that amount between all of us. That dollar amount is what I'm responsible to the firm to bring in in a year. We divide any unusual or unexpected expenses or price raises the same way.

As long as I pay this amount to the firm, they don't care if I make $0 beyond that.

My personal goal is that once I deduct that amount and any other personal business expenses, I need to make the same pre-tax amount as the average Crown of my year of call plus 15% more to account for their pension/benefits. 

So far, that has not been a problem. It's hard for me to say exactly how many hours I work, because I bring work home, I answer calls/send emails a lot out of work hours etc. But I never work much on weekends. If I needed to make more money because I was falling behind that target, I would have to actively hustle more to try to get more clients and cover that shortfall. I currently do not actively hustle - ie. I don't come down to the courthouse specifically to look for people who seem like they need lawyers. If I am at court anyway and I see someone looking lost or get approached, I'll roll with it, but if I have a free couple of hours, I'd rather go write a factum or do trial prep than wander around looking for clients. If I needed clients, I would have to spend more time hustling in court in the day and then do the other work at night, so it would add more hours. I also don't go for lunch with other lawyers specifically to try to develop a referral network - I'll go with the people who already refer to me because we're friends and we like to get together but the purpose isn't specifically hustling.  

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I'm in US big law.  My firm has no billable hours target. As far as I know all associates get the same bonus regardless of their hours.  An average year is probably 2200-2300 hours logged, a few hundred hours of which will be non-billable (CLE, pro bono work, et cetera).  I find about 3/4 of time I spend at work is billable, the rest being breaks/office chit chat/procrastination.

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I forgot to address billing. For me, what I bill has no real correlation to hours worked. I have some legal aid work for a flat fee and some for an hourly rate but the hours may be capped or the rate is lower than what I would charge privately. Most cash files I have are for a flat rate which varies with the client’s ability to pay. A few are hourly. Some days I can work 10-12 hours and nothing is billable. Sometimes unbilled time translates to paying work in the future. I also contribute to the running of my business which is not billable, as well as things like bar association work, speaking engagements etc.

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I'll be working in a boutique firm (less than 10 lawyers) about 40 minutes outside of downtown Toronto. I'll primarily be working in commercial litigation, with a bit of corporate and estates work thrown in (we do some estate planning as a favour for our corporate clients).

I should note that I haven't actually  begun working as a lawyer yet, but I inquired with the firm about what billable targets, hours, etc. I canexpect.

My scenario is a bit different than most. The founding partner of the firm is hoping to transition from being the firm's chief litigator to a full-time mediator over the next ~5 years. Basically, I've been hired to overtake the litigation practice during and after this transition phase. Therefore, I have neither a billable nor a non-billable target. The partner is much more interested in me "learning the ropes" and building a rapport with our clients. I've been told to expect an 8-6 Mon-Fri work schedule, but I may need to work beyond those hours during busy periods (i.e. trials).

I think the takeaway from all these responses is that something like target hour expectations varies depending on where you work and what you do. It would be most useful for OP to hear from someone in a near identical situation to their own, unless he/she is interested in switching fields.

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40 minutes ago, AtticusF said:

I'll be working in a boutique firm (less than 10 lawyers) about 40 minutes outside of downtown Toronto. I'll primarily be working in commercial litigation, with a bit of corporate and estates work thrown in (we do some estate planning as a favour for our corporate clients).

I should note that I haven't actually  begun working as a lawyer yet, but I inquired with the firm about what billable targets, hours, etc. I canexpect.

My scenario is a bit different than most. The founding partner of the firm is hoping to transition from being the firm's chief litigator to a full-time mediator over the next ~5 years. Basically, I've been hired to overtake the litigation practice during and after this transition phase. Therefore, I have neither a billable nor a non-billable target. The partner is much more interested in me "learning the ropes" and building a rapport with our clients. I've been told to expect an 8-6 Mon-Fri work schedule, but I may need to work beyond those hours during busy periods (i.e. trials).

I think the takeaway from all these responses is that something like target hour expectations varies depending on where you work and what you do. It would be most useful for OP to hear from someone in a near identical situation to their own, unless he/she is interested in switching fields.

Depending on how efficient you get when your 8-6 day (e.g., can you bill 8/10 of those hours?), you may want to negotiate a target with a bonus structure/profit sharing structure...

Edited by conge

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Back in my associate days the targets were 1750-1800 (I can't remember which) billiable and 200-250 non-billable (2000 in total).  I never came close to the billable target (if I think back, I think my best year was ~1500). On the other hand, my non-billable time typically well exceeded my target (500-800 hours was common).  People would comment on it, but never enough to hold back my career.  Once I ceased to be an associate, the targets changed, to 1500 billable and 800 non-billable (The theory being that as you move up, you should be spending more time bringing in business - you should also be more efficient, I suppose).  

Now, a couple of caveats. First, tax is different than other practices in some respects- the nature of the practice is that it's hard to rack up hours (my colleagues who work at tax boutiques who do similar types of work have billable targets closer to 1450, at accounting firms with similar practices, the targets are even lower).  My firm recognized that: at 1500 hours, I'd get a decent bonus.  Certainly, I know some of the senior partners in the group didn't meet the notional targets when they were associates.  Had I been a corporate associate or a litigator, I would have been let go.  Second, a fair bit of my non-billable time was spent adding real, tangible, value to the firm - I often advised the firm on its own tax issues (when those lunatics in BC brought back the PST, I did a ton of work getting our billing system set up to bring us into compliance with our PST obligations and training lawyers on how to bill under the new regime), so when senior partners were sending out their bills, they'd be giving me a call.   So at year end if someone asked why they should keep me around despite my low (billable) hours (and they never asked me that, but I suppose it was asked somewhere) it was an easy question to answer.  

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1 hour ago, maximumbob said:

Now, a couple of caveats. First, tax is different than other practices in some respects- the nature of the practice is that it's hard to rack up hours  


I'm curious, could you elaborate?

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2 hours ago, maximumbob said:

Back in my associate days the targets were 1750-1800 (I can't remember which) billiable and 200-250 non-billable (2000 in total).  I never came close to the billable target (if I think back, I think my best year was ~1500). On the other hand, my non-billable time typically well exceeded my target (500-800 hours was common).  People would comment on it, but never enough to hold back my career.  Once I ceased to be an associate, the targets changed, to 1500 billable and 800 non-billable (The theory being that as you move up, you should be spending more time bringing in business - you should also be more efficient, I suppose).  

Now, a couple of caveats. First, tax is different than other practices in some respects- the nature of the practice is that it's hard to rack up hours (my colleagues who work at tax boutiques who do similar types of work have billable targets closer to 1450, at accounting firms with similar practices, the targets are even lower).  My firm recognized that: at 1500 hours, I'd get a decent bonus.  Certainly, I know some of the senior partners in the group didn't meet the notional targets when they were associates.  Had I been a corporate associate or a litigator, I would have been let go.  Second, a fair bit of my non-billable time was spent adding real, tangible, value to the firm - I often advised the firm on its own tax issues (when those lunatics in BC brought back the PST, I did a ton of work getting our billing system set up to bring us into compliance with our PST obligations and training lawyers on how to bill under the new regime), so when senior partners were sending out their bills, they'd be giving me a call.   So at year end if someone asked why they should keep me around despite my low (billable) hours (and they never asked me that, but I suppose it was asked somewhere) it was an easy question to answer.  

This is news to me! :)

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39 minutes ago, Myrand said:


I'm curious, could you elaborate?

I'm just thinking in contrast to my corporate or litigation colleagues - heading into a closing or a big trial, they can come in, turn on their clocks, and bill until they leave (more true for younger associates, less true as you get more senior such that you might be managing multiple different files).  As a tax lawyers, you don't (or, at least, at my firm we didn't) get drawn into work where you might spend a couple of weeks working more or less on one big file - I might have a few files like that (that I can remember those ones specifically is telling) - you're always on multiple different files (in contrast, I can think of colleagues in litigation or corporate who might have spent months working on a single file).  Most of your day might be a 0.3 here, a 1.5 there, a 0.2, a  1, etc.    Apart from the risk of losing time, shifting back and forth from file to file is inefficient.  It doesn't sound like much, but if you lose a few minutes every time you shift to a new matter, that adds up to a couple of hundred hours a year.  

The other point is that you need to spend more (non-billable) time keeping up with new law, new cases, etc.  I mean, they amend the CBCA once every, what, couple of years, usually in non-substantive ways.  There are typically two sets of large (e.g., typically several hundred pages) and substantive amendments to the ITA every year (the budget and the summer technical amendments - sometimes there are smaller technical bills too), and you need to spend the time to figure out what they mean and whether they effect you and your practice before the question actually comes up in practice (because how are you going to known that its relevant unless you've figured out what it means).  So the PD obligations to maintain currency are more onerous than for other biglaw practice areas (that might not be true for, say, criminal law).  

Edited by maximumbob
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1 hour ago, maximumbob said:

I'm just thinking in contrast to my corporate or litigation colleagues - heading into a closing or a big trial, they can come in, turn on their clocks, and bill until they leave (more true for younger associates, less true as you get more senior such that you might be managing multiple different files).  As a tax lawyers, you don't (or, at least, at my firm we didn't) get drawn into work where you might spend a couple of weeks working more or less on one big file - I might have a few files like that (that I can remember those ones specifically is telling) - you're always on multiple different files (in contrast, I can think of colleagues in litigation or corporate who might have spent months working on a single file).  Most of your day might be a 0.3 here, a 1.5 there, a 0.2, a  1, etc.    Apart from the risk of losing time, shifting back and forth from file to file is inefficient.  It doesn't sound like much, but if you lose a few minutes every time you shift to a new matter, that adds up to a couple of hundred hours a year.  

The other point is that you need to spend more (non-billable) time keeping up with new law, new cases, etc.  I mean, they amend the CBCA once every, what, couple of years, usually in non-substantive ways.  There are typically two sets of large (e.g., typically several hundred pages) and substantive amendments to the ITA every year (the budget and the summer technical amendments - sometimes there are smaller technical bills too), and you need to spend the time to figure out what they mean and whether they effect you and your practice before the question actually comes up in practice (because how are you going to known that its relevant unless you've figured out what it means).  So the PD obligations to maintain currency are more onerous than for other biglaw practice areas (that might not be true for, say, criminal law).  

Is this just for the planning side of things or does this apply to tax lit as well?

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2 minutes ago, solas said:

Is this just for the planning side of things or does this apply to tax lit as well?

I mostly did planning, so couldn't tell you on the litigation side.  Depending on the nature of your practice, it might be different.  

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1 hour ago, maximumbob said:

I'm just thinking in contrast to my corporate or litigation colleagues - heading into a closing or a big trial, they can come in, turn on their clocks, and bill until they leave (more true for younger associates, less true as you get more senior such that you might be managing multiple different files).  As a tax lawyers, you don't (or, at least, at my firm we didn't) get drawn into work where you might spend a couple of weeks working more or less on one big file - I might have a few files like that (that I can remember those ones specifically is telling) - you're always on multiple different files (in contrast, I can think of colleagues in litigation or corporate who might have spent months working on a single file).  Most of your day might be a 0.3 here, a 1.5 there, a 0.2, a  1, etc.    Apart from the risk of losing time, shifting back and forth from file to file is inefficient.  It doesn't sound like much, but if you lose a few minutes every time you shift to a new matter, that adds up to a couple of hundred hours a year.  

This is true. I always bill way more on days when I'm only working on one or two things because I waste a lot of time transitioning between assignments (usually ahem...wasting time cleansing the legal palette between tasks).

However -- as a side observation -- (and I'm not at that point yet, but I notice it with some senior associates), you can still rack up a lot of billable time in one day doing a lot of .1 work because you're rounding up (at least, my firm rounds up). So say I send 3 emails on 3 files that combined take me 1 minute each. I've done 3 minutes of real time work, but I billed 0.3, which is 18 minutes. So the round up can add quite a bit to your total when there're enough items on that day's docket. 

Also, in litigation, you can rack up a fair amount of billable time on discoveries, which often do not involve that much work (though often they do!), but where the clock just runs until you're done, and that may include travel time and (sometimes multiple) breaks as well. Not to mention the client reporting letters, which are fairly mind-numbing to draft but which can also take a while.

Anyway, at my firm: downtown Toronto boutique litigation firm, 1600 billable target. There is no non-billable target. 

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17 hours ago, habsfan93 said:

I'm in US big law.  My firm has no billable hours target. As far as I know all associates get the same bonus regardless of their hours.  An average year is probably 2200-2300 hours logged, a few hundred hours of which will be non-billable (CLE, pro bono work, et cetera).  I find about 3/4 of time I spend at work is billable, the rest being breaks/office chit chat/procrastination.

Just for my own curiosity,  with no billable target do the partners measure your performance by comparing your billables to your colleagues? For example - if all of the associates are billing 2000 hours and you're at 1800 do they call you in and ask you what's going on? 

I had heard through the grapevine that Davies Toronto does this - there is no billable target, but that actually results in more hours for associates to bill (compared to other Bay street firms) because they all have to "keep pace" with each other. Just wondering if it's the same type of system in US big law. 

 

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56 minutes ago, Lawl said:

 

However -- as a side observation -- (and I'm not at that point yet, but I notice it with some senior associates), you can still rack up a lot of billable time in one day doing a lot of .1 work because you're rounding up (at least, my firm rounds up). So say I send 3 emails on 3 files that combined take me 1 minute each. I've done 3 minutes of real time work, but I billed 0.3, which is 18 minutes. So the round up can add quite a bit to your total when there're enough items on that day's docket. 

 

I don't see how this isn't fraud...

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1 minute ago, Eeee said:

I don't see how this isn't fraud...

How so? 1 hour = 60 minutes. Time is docketed in 0.1 increments, where 0.1 = 6 minutes. Anything up to 6 minutes = .1. so 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3, minutes, etc. up to 6 minutes = 0.1 docketed. I work 60 minutes, I bill 1 unit. I work 58 minutes, I bill 1 unit. I work 54 minutes, I bill 0.9 units. That's how the billing system works. U don't docket 0.09 units for 5 minutes. 

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