Many lawyers complain the profession consumes them. Practicing law exemplifies the trading off between time and money. Time truly is money. You sell time; and your life is your time. Law firms are businesses that sell their employees' time. The law firm must find and keep clients for its product in order to stay in business. Clients want service. You must work longer and cheaper to keep yourself competitive in this shrinking world. Quick turnaround times and twenty-four hour availability are now commonplace. The long hours are unpredictable. You may be out of town for weeks on end reviewing documents, taking depositions, trying a case, or working on a corporate acquisition. International travel may add into your equation. Foreign travel dramatically cuts into family time. Spouse and children feel the distance. Even when you are home, you may be away, mentally and emotionally.
Law firms usually require their attorneys to bill more than eighteen hundred hours per year. Many expect two thousand hours. Work the arithmetic. As a rule, ten hours in the office will yield eight billable hours. So two thousand billable hours means that you must work twenty-five hundred hours each year. Assuming you can fit in a couple of weeks of vacation a year, that yields a fifty-hour work week. This means you work nights and weekends. How many times has a Friday afternoon call from a client with a Monday deadline ruined a weekend? Too many will ruin a marriage.
I know you have to work long and hard nowadays to be successful. I am not afraid of hard work. But, I can't remember the last time I didn't work on a Saturday. I've even gone into the office on Saturday when I didn't have any pressing work. I just went in to catch up. I've lost control over the time in my life. My job is my life. My life is my job. The cliche of being on a treadmill really does apply to me. I'm not sure I can get off.
-Attorney with a large metropolitan legal firm
Why not just charge more, so you can work less? You know the answer. The global economy has made the world too competitive to support legal fee largess. The competition to keep the firm-hopping clients staying with you discourages increasing the billing rate. The employees must work longer and produce more. This has spawned intense competition, not only among competing firms, but within the firm itself.
Billable hours. Billable hours. It's all I hear. Like it's some kind of mantra or something. I suppose it is because it's almost a religion around here. We've got an office administrator that keeps track of our hours and the partners get a report every week. It's like being in jail or something. Logging the hours is one thing. Getting paid by the client is another. I'll work eight hours for a client and they will negotiate it down to four. And then, of course, we've got rainmaking. That's what you call bringing in business for your firm. Time spent doing that doesn't count. But you better be doing it. Sometimes I think I'd be better off flipping burgers.
-Associate in a medium-size firm
The law firm has changed the way it operates. It has gone from operating like a professional organization to operating like a service organization. It used to be that lawyers knew their adversaries on a respectful, professional basis. Many knew each other socially. As the number of lawyers keeps increasing, lawyers barely even know the people in their own firm. The personal side of practicing law has disappeared. Computerization has created the ability to instantly compare billable hours among the attorney-workers. Influence within the firm depends upon hours billed, rather than on competence and integrity. If you want to survive, keep those billable hours rising. To move up, find new business for the firm. Billable hours and rainmaking ability are prerequisites to partnership. Office politics is a byproduct. Camaraderie within the firm and among lawyers is now all but gone. There is no time for it and no reason for it. The reality of practicing law has changed forever.
It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out.
It's the grain of sand in your shoe.
Excerpted from "Judgment Reversed" by Jeffrey Strausser (Barrons Educational Series, Inc. 1997).