Lawyer Moms and the Billable Hours Requirement

17 comments

I apologize in advance for what may seem like a post geared toward a limited audience. But as a lawyer who is both a mom and interested in the legal workplace and careers in general, I will feel compelled from time to time to talk about mothering in the context of lawyering, as well as lawyering in the context of mothering. And if you’re not a lawyer, I hope that you are nevertheless able to generalize some of this stuff to your own career or workplace.

Most firms have an annual billable hours requirement that hovers in the vicinity of 1800 hours for small to mid-sized firms. I’ve never been quite sure whether “requirement” means YOU WILL BE FIRED FOR NOT MEETING 1800 HOURS, or if it’s more like “well it’s not good if you don’t make it, but we’ll kind of look the other way for a while, maybe your bonus will be impacted, maybe it won’t.”

I should also explain, for the uninitiated, that a “billable hour” is time that can, at least in theory, be charged to a client. So let’s say you put in ten hours at the office. Let’s say one hour is taken up by running to Starbucks, chatting with your friend in the hallway, shopping online since there’s no kids around to distract you, and calling the salon to reschedule your hair appointment and thrown in an eyebrow wax too. Now let’s say you go to lunch with your friend, and that takes another hour. Then one of the assistants has a personal crisis to leave work for, leaving your assistant busy covering her work, leaving you to do a half-hour copying and organizing job that you can’t justify charging the client for. So that leaves you with seven and a half hours that you actually spend on performing legal services for client matters. Actually, if you find yourself spacing out, reading your favorite blogs or instant messaging your friends while you are in the middle of working on something for a client, then you can probably deduct another chunk of time from that seven and a half hours.

So let’s say you manage to bill 6 or 7 hours a day on a client file. This is good, billable time that you record as such – 2.5 hours drafting a brief, 1.0 hours researching something like equitable estoppel, 3.2 hours researching and drafting a memorandum interpreting a federal statute … this all gets put down in your time records.

If you manage to bill 150 hours each month for 12 months, this will equal 1800 hours a year. No problem right? Well, 150 hours divided by 4 weeks is 37.5 hours per week. But if you follow the above model, and realistically are only able to bill 6 or 7 hours out of your 10-hour day (and as a mom, are you really going to be in the office from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day?), that means you are doing closer to 30-35 hours per week, or 120-140 hours a month, at the very most. Sure, some days you will be very focused and actually bill 8, 9 or 10 hours. But I bet, on an average day, you will not be able to bill all of the time you spend at work. To remedy this problem, you could of course work 12-14 hours every single workday, or put in 6-8 hours on the weekends. But hey Mom, I bet you’re not doing that. Because I know I’m not – not unless I have the pressure of a deadline to meet or an astronomical workload to deal with. There are times when I do have a looming deadline or just too much on my plate, and I think, Oh good, I’ll bill 150 hours this month! Then I’ll remember that this means spending a Saturday away from my kid (because the work does not get done at home with a toddler on the loose), or miss her dinner, bath and bedtime every night this week.

So let’s get back to our numbers, dear Lawyer Mom. If you’re not willing to work regular evenings and weekends, and your work habits are those of the average law firm associate at a relatively lower-pressure mid-sized firm like mine, you are probably billing between 6-9 hours on any given day (but sometimes as high as 12, sometimes as low as 4), 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month. Oh wait – no you’re not. Because you probably take 2-3 weeks of vacation a year, which may consist of a few days here, a few days there, even if you’re not going away somewhere for a whole week. So that loses you 10-15 workdays. And you may be able to “make up” for that lost billable time by increasing your workload substantially just before and just after your vacation time – but what fun is that?

I haven’t even mentioned marketing yet. At a firm of my size, associates are expected to make a substantial contribution toward marketing. If you’re not preparing your own PowerPoint, written materials and notes for a seminar you’ll be giving to clients or prospective clients, then you’ll be preparing these things for someone you work for. Count on doing around 200 marketing hours a year. Some firms will tell you to do this on top of your 1800 billable hours, meaning that you must put in 2000 hours of work time (non-administrative, i.e., organizing your office and cleaning up your inbox is neither billable time nor marketing time). Some firms say 1800 hours, and then have a vague policy or no policy when it comes to marketing. Most firms have an unspoken rule that the 1800 hours is an ideal yet attainable goal, and while most of those hours should be billable, some can probably include marketing and bar association meetings and other work-related stuff, but really you should be doing as much as possible on all fronts, and the more you do, the bigger your bonus and/or raise will be.

I’ve as of yet never heard of anyone being fired for failure to meet their billable requirement. But as I write this, it is almost the close of the month, and I know I haven’t billed even close to 150 hours this month. And there are 2 months left in the year. I am spending my days at work, my nights taking care of a toddler, my weekends doing some combination of housework and other family obligations, and practically no time with friends or pursuing what leisure activities I used to have.

I’m freaking tired.

Lawyer Moms-to-Be: Make no mistake. Your bottom line will take a hit in your child’s first year of life, and probably beyond. I am not sure what this means for you or for me. It is a problem I’ve never had to deal with before. I’m scared, I’m sick of worrying, and I’m exhausted. I’m questioning whether there isn’t an alternative to the billable hours model. But I’m also realizing that any alternative I may seek would involve either starting my own practice, or leaving the practice entirely, or sparking some kind of revolution in the profession to change the system.

I’m 9 weeks pregnant with my second child. If productivity was tough during Mackenzie’s first year of life, it is even tougher spending my workday with a fetus. It’s tougher than the first time around, when my pregnancy was carefree and fun and I had NO NAUSEA. This pregnancy = CONSTANT NAUSEA. I haven’t told the powers that be at work yet. I suspect they may know, however, from seeing me with my head on my desk at work and eating ramen noodles at 10:30 in the morning in an attempt to defuse my nausea with high amounts of sodium and starch.

I meant for this to be a lot more informational and inspirational. Wow, epic FAIL on my part! Lawyer Moms, we will get through this. I’ll tell you what happens when they come to talk to me about my bonus and raise in December … if I get a bonus or a raise (shudder).

17 comments on “Lawyer Moms and the Billable Hours Requirement”

    1. Thank you. I took a year off work, m back to what Cincinnati considers a “big” firm and have a 2,000 a year billable requirement and kids that aren’t in school yet…. not only is it hearing everyday “mama no I don’t want you to work today” it’s the fact that coming home after a long day of work I have to put the mom hat on and play Nd be the mom I want to be. It’s hard. It’s tiring and honestly sometimes it seems overwhelming. I get the accountability of the billable hour but seriously every six minutes of my life? It’s a lot

      1. I agree with you!!! It is so hard. Im struggling every day. I’ve debated getting someone to help me in the mornings and evenings but I also enjoy that time the most out of my day. Being a lawyer mom is hard. Sending you hugs 💕

  1. Omg – I literally just wrote a post that almost mirrors this exactly. As I was looking for photos, I found your post. We all feel 100% the same. Personally I think I’m about ready to throw in the towel. Over these ridiculous expectations!

  2. I just stumbled across this post and want to say that, as a lawyer-dad, I can relate to many of your feelings. I am the dad of a 1 1/2-year-old, and we are fortunate that my wife is able to stay at home and watch after him. But I owe it to both of them to be there, spend quality time at home, give my wife a break from looking after our kid, and generally be a good husband and father.

    In particular, as a new lawyer at a mid-size firm, your description of billing time at your firm sound eerily similar to what I go through. 50 hours a week in the office just isn’t enough to bill all your time, what with all the other things that go on in a day. Unless your willing to consistently put in 12 hours days in the office or work significant time on weekends, I find it very hard to believe a new-ish lawyer can honestly and ethically bill their required hours.

    The question ultimately being: Can I maintain any semblance of a family life while meeting my billable hours at a mid-size or biglaw law firm?

    I know this post is old, but I’d like to know how things have turned out for you.

    1. Andy, thanks so much for your comment, and congratulations to you and your wife for surviving the first year with a baby. To answer your question, it didn’t work out, and as a result I have been a solo attorney since around March of last year. This is by far the best professional decision I have ever made. I am still working hard, and probably working even more than I did at a firm when you consider all the marketing and administrative functions I need to cover … but I am happier. Good luck to you, and if you are looking for more information on this topic, you can read through my old posts (you can click on my name on my bio page in the dropdown blogger descriptions) to see where my practice has taken me over the course of the past year.

  3. THANK YOU!!!!! I had my twin boys two days after this post and am going through the 1800 hours trauma with my firm now that I am back full time…and I am a partner. Trust me, it is just as much pressure. Thank you for making me feel that I am not alone!!!

    1. Good luck Amy, and thanks for reminding me about this, because I never updated to say what actually happened at the end of the year … I will try to get a post up on that if I am brave enough. It’s times like this that I am reminded of Heather Armstrong of dooce.com, who was famously fired for blogging about her job … but is now laughing all the way to the bank due to the blog’s success. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet! 😛

  4. Congratulations, Melanie! And on your post- my husband and i are both lawyers, he has billable hours, and in my position, i do not. One of the biggest things he was nervous about when i had Jake was that his hours for that month were not anywhere close to where they should be. Fortunately he comes from a very family-oriented law firm, where all of the lawyers have small kids, so they were very understanding. The stress alone of filling your hours sans-kids is one thing, but throw a baby in the mix…….

    1. Marie – I was just thinking that lawyer dads from our generation may have just as much trouble with this as lawyer moms. Older generations seem to be populated with lawyer men who had stay-at-home wives to take care of their children when they were young. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it makes it difficult for those older folks to understand how hard it is for those of us in dual-career households.

  5. Mel, you snuck that in just like Jillian did! Congratulations, neighbor!!! Nora is happy to have a future playmate on the way!

  6. CONGRATS on the pregnancy Mel! Way to sneak it in there! Also – I’m going to post this on some lawyer related facebook pages to spread the word 🙂

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