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The Gilded Cage That is Lawyer Billable Hours

Jordan Turk

Written by

Jordan Turk


March 6, 2024

The Gilded Cage That is Lawyer Billable Hours

Billable hours can be intoxicating - stay focused on not giving yourself or your team a hangover.

Like many of my compatriots in the practice of law, I bill by the hour. This means that my earning potential is almost limitless during my lifetime; the more years I practice, the more accolades I get, the more board certification exams I pass, the higher my hourly rate goes. And, the more hours I work, the more money I make. I am hampered solely by the annoying fact of there being only 24 hours in a day, and the need to sleep and see my family (periodically, and only the members that I like). I suppose there’s also the issue of making sure clients pay their bills, but that’s a subject for another article.  

Although the monetary aspect of law practice is enticing – and warranted, given everything we had to go through to get our licenses and become successful – the tradeoff is often detrimental to our personal lives. Let’s go through some of the more positive aspects of the billable hour, as well as their drawbacks: 

Perk #1: You can bill from anywhere. 

Gone are the days when attorneys would be chained to their desks and fax machines in order to go about their daily practices. With the advent and widespread adoption of computers and, depending on the jurisdiction, a solid e-filing system, attorneys can work from pretty much anywhere. There are entire articles and Facebook groups devoted solely to lawyering from a different state, or a different country entirely. Attending a hearing in Texas whilst looking out onto a beach in Mexico is now a dream realized for many lawyers. 

Just don’t let go of work, life balance.

But all that glitters is not gold here. Just because you can bill from anywhere doesn’t mean that you should. I’m seeing a toxic trend emerge amongst my peers, especially via their social media accounts. I’ll open Instagram to find a colleague on vacation in Greece, a picture posted of their work laptop open with the Aegean Sea in the background, bearing the caption “always be billing.” This glorification of working on vacation is not the flex they think it is, and honestly saddens me. It says something about the state of our chosen profession, this inability for many of us to take a real vacation, sans work.  

I remember years ago, as a mere baby attorney, I found myself on the side of a mountain in Colorado, spreading my dad’s ashes (it took us some fifteen years, but we finally did it). During the scant times that my phone had reception, I was fielding calls from a partner about a discovery issue. A colleague’s mistake meant I was having to address these problems on my time off. The partner was well aware of what I was doing in Colorado with my family that weekend, but still insisted I answer her questions.  

And you know what the most problematic thing was? I was almost glad to have taken the phone calls, because it meant one more billable hour for me. I felt like someone important, answering my phone and fielding questions as we drove along winding mountain roads, and I look back on that now with incredulity. I want to shake myself. There should be no glorification in the sacrifice of quality time with family for the sake of an extra billable hour. 

Perk #2: You can be extremely flexible with your schedule. 

Despite the long hours, attorneys have the ability to be fairly flexible with our time off – the key is to just make up those hours later. I can easily go to a doctor’s appointment at lunchtime and not have to worry about requesting PTO. Instead, I know I’m just going to work for an extra hour that day before heading home. There is a certain freedom in the billable hour schema.  

What is work-life balance anyway?

However, this billable hour system shoots a lot of us in the foot. Unlike a traditional employer-given PTO model, many attorneys feel like they can’t ever take a real vacation absent a trade-off. Even when a firm officially gives attorneys twenty days of PTO, most attorneys never use it, instead opting to make up those hours on the backend. So we work on weekends, we work longer days before and after our vacation, so as to keep up our monthly billable goals. 

In my opinion, employers need to make it clear to associates that they are expected to actually take their PTO, and that it’s okay if your monthly hours take the corresponding hit to reflect your (hard-earned) time off. 

Perk #3: The sky's the limit for your earning potential. 

The problem with making money, especially if you are like me and did not grow up with much, is that you always want more of it. You finally are able to buy a car that doesn’t shake when you drive above 60 mph. You can go into a department store and don’t have to immediately head to the clearance rack to find a suit. 

It can be intoxicating. And, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. You earned the money, and you should spend it however you want to so long as you are being fiscally responsible about it. Life is very short. Buy the shoes. Book the trip. Enjoy your brief existence here on planet Earth.  

Burnout is always one step away

The issue is, the more you make and the more you buy, the more extravagant your lifestyle becomes. So you get stuck in this hamster wheel of billing more hours just to afford the things to which you have become accustomed. And guess what? It still will never be enough. 

A friend billed 3,000 hours last year, which is insane. This translates to working at least 8.2 hours every day for the year, which includes weekends and holidays. Every time I called him, he was working. Christmas Eve? Working. The weekend? Working. This pace of work is unsustainable and untenable.   

Eventually, all roads lead to burnout.  

So, what is to be done to break the gilded cage? 

Fortunately, lawyers have the capability to be the captains of their own destinies. We can choose to set boundaries; we can start interviewing for a new position; we can hang our own shingle. Below are just a few things to consider, whether you are an overworked and underpaid associate, or if you are the managing partner of your firm. 

  1. Set reasonable billing requirements.
    Three thousand hours sounds lovely for a firm’s profit margin, but you run the risk of burning out your cash cows. I remember feeling betrayed when I found out a colleague made the same amount of money as me, but was only required to bill 100 hours per month at her firm.

    There will always be firms out there ready to snatch you or your team members up. Don’t squander the talent that you have. Encourage them to have a real work/life balance. Great software can track hours for your firm. Leverage this data to know when to grow. If your team is meeting their goals and more clients are knocking at the door, it's time to hire.
  1. Set deadlines for billable hour entries.
    Don’t let your associates wait until the end of the month to input their time. Instead, require every billable staff member to get their time in by Friday of each week. Remember, time not logged is money potentially lost for the firm. Automating this process is becoming a norm for law firms.
  1. Use technology to your advantage.
    Part of what stokes associate burnout is the necessity of administrative tasks. If I worked over 200 hours that month, I am tired and the last thing I want to do is input my hours into a clunky system. Or, maybe your firm has problem children who never input their hours by the deadline, or they spend hours trying to recreate their time from the past month (we’ve all been guilty of this at some point).
    Technology now exists to capture these hours and automatically log it into your billing program (hello, Smokeball billing). If there’s one thing you can be doing to help your associates (and get more money for this firm), it’s this. Use technology to your advantage. 
  1. Let your team have a life.
    Don’t bother them on vacation; don’t encourage them to bring their work laptop with them to Europe. Check in with them before they leave and ask if they need any help or anyone to cover their cases while they are away. Be a resource for yourself, your coworkers, and staff. Set clear expectations for work life and home life for your firm. Communicate them regularly and have contingencies for emergency situations.
  1. Compensate your associates fairly.
    This should be a no-brainer, yet firm leaders are still incensed when an attorney leaves for a higher-paying job. Workplace loyalty is an antiquated idea in today’s world – pay up, or risk losing talented associates who make you money. And if you are the underpaid associate in this equation, it never hurts to know your worth. If someone from a different firm wants to set up a call with you, do it!  
  1. Learn how to set boundaries.
    I know, easier said than done. But you can take this slow. For me, I started with disabling my Outlook notification sound, because every time it would go off, my heart rate would skyrocket. I also made a requirement for myself that I would not check my work emails between the hours of 10pm and 7am, to preserve my sanity (family law is wild, y’all). Do what you need to do to protect your peace.   

The tides of traditional law firm life are shifting, albeit gradually. More and more associates are valuing a work/life balance over earnings. They want remote or hybrid options. They want to make it home for family dinner. And this inherently is the problem with the billable hour, this fallacy that partners promulgate when we get hired – the sky's the limit to your salary, you just have to bill your heart away. But, as many of us have discovered over the years, a cage is still a cage, no matter how gilded it may be.

Related Product Content

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Bill Better From Anywhere: How Legal Billing Software Boosts Your Profitability

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