This week in Bigger than Biglaw, Neena Dutta discusses the billable hour system and how networking gave her the confidence to buck the system and go solo.
As many of you reading this know, an offer letter from your dream Biglaw job comes with “strings.” Actually, one tight string around your neck: the billable hour requirement.
For those not in the know, a billable hour requirement is the quota of hours an associate has to hit: the minimum number of hours that a multi-service firm associate must bill to clients on an annual basis.
For example, at one job, I had a quota of 2000 hours per year.
Do the math: If you work all 52 week in a year, you must bill 38.46 hours per week to reach your quota. If you take two weeks of vacation, you are responsible for billing 40 hours per week.
Sort of sounds easy peasy, doesn’t it? 40 hours per week, eight hour days, psshh, who isn’t going to rock that?
Well, the work day is not a pure billable straight 8 hours.
Just because you read a document from a client, does not mean that you can bill all of that time. And forget about the fact that you just spent three hours trying to have IT resolve your technical issues. Non-billable time. Every associate’s nightmare.
The most insulting of the non-billable’s comes directly from the partner who says:
“Err, I have a friend. Can you just research that for me and pop it over in an email. Nothing formal, just meh- something to guide them on this $500k project that you will totally have liability for if we give them the wrong information. And by the way, this is a long standing client of the firm. So, let’s do this as a courtesy for them… it is great business.”
In meeting your billable hour requirement, you develop a syndrome not dissimilar to Stockholm Syndrome.
You begin to normalize the behavior and even develop sympathy and empathy for the system. After two months, it is “just a fact of life.”
I have always had an independent streak in me. It is part of my success as a solo attorney. And, I think that billable hour system is somewhat archaic, especially for immigration law. It is bad practice and encourages bad behavior. I found a way to rebel from within the system.
Sadly, I do believe the only way to honestly (I say honestly because there are a lot of people who dishonestly pad their hours, or double bill different clients) bill or exceed your billables is to swallow your pride and take on additional projects.
I did exactly that. I took on projects that had nothing to do with my practice area. Most of the time, the work was mind-numbing. In fact, I even took document review projects just so that I could keep up with my quota. Needless to say, I wasn’t extraordinarily fulfilled.
Looking back on it now, taking the mind-numbing work to satisfy the billable requirement was my silver-lining.
As a result of arduous, mundane non-practice area work. I was able to honestly bill huge chunks of time. Meeting the requirement afforded me the freedom to go out and network. Many of you reading this may be thinking: “Well, how did you network during business hours and avoid getting in hot-water with partners who expect you to be in your office when they need you?” That, my friends, is a story for another day.
I was going to luncheons and seminars with a confidence that can only emerge from knowing all of your obligations have been met. (Let me tell you, conversation and networking are better without the weight of a guilty conscience.)
My networking activities started with CLE’s (another static requirement.) I began meeting people. Then, I dove head-on into the after-work networking pool. I made a splash. Plus, cocktail hours make networking fun.
I always had my business cards. I always followed-up. (Exchanging business cards is worthless unless you put the time in after the handshake and card exchange.)
Not surprisingly, I made meaningful connections. (I have been described in many ways, some terms are even pejorative. The most common is a “people person.”) People liked me. And, I learned that people do business with people they like. I started receiving referrals.
Let me state this: these were my referrals. I brought them in. I made the connections. I did the work on their cases. I kept them happy. My firm got the money.
Looking back on it, there was a peculiar masochistic sensibility about my behavior.
A surprising thing happened as a result of my networking: I started to meet the billable hour requirement in my practice area [by working on the projects I originated]. I didn’t have to engage in mind-numbing doc review anymore.
Even more surprising, meeting my billable quota distanced me from happiness.
On paper, I should have been satisfied. I was practicing the type of law I loved. I was getting paid well for it. But, something just wasn’t sitting quite right.
I couldn’t shake the fact that I was a metaphorical cave woman:
I was hunting, gathering, killing and cooking. And, I was doing this on my own.
The firm name on my business card helped the gathering part, but I did the rest.
In hindsight, I have to thank the billable hour system for my solo success. Without it, I may have never realized my potential. I now know my professional worth.
Neena Dutta is a corporate immigration attorney with the Dutta Law Firm, a firm she founded after leaving a Biglaw associate position with a prestigious New York firm. Neena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ shared law office space in Downtown, New York and her weekly blog series, The Dutta Diaries, explores the thought process that goes into leaving a Biglaw job for the world of solo practice, and her experiences since making this career altering shift.