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Lawyer in burnout? Record your billable hours accurately

I’ve met several young associates that work at private law firms. They sometimes contact me because they are in burnout. I ask them if they are billing their hours accurately on client files. After a bit of discussion, they often realize they are not, and that this inaccuracy is contributing to their burnout.

Billing accurately is an art form that most lawyers must master. When you are new to your career and have high expectations for yourself, you may feel that you can only bill for productive hours. This idea is laudable, but it may leave you putting in too many hours because not every hour that you work will be productive.

This is an important concept so I’m going to develop it a bit further. Many of the hours a young associate puts in are not highly productive, by definition. You’re going to have a steep learning curve on a file when the area of law or the subject matter is new to you.

Should you bill all your hours when you have a steep learning curve? The answer is a resounding yes. The partners at your firm consider how steep your learning curve has been when they determine how many of your hours to pass on to the client on an invoice. If you billed more hours than it’s reasonable to charge the client for, the partner will knock off some of your hours. That’s why your realization rate, compared to your actual hours billed, isn’t 100%.

If your realization rate is high, and no partner has complained about the number of hours you have billed, you might want to try billing more hours because the partner will likely be open to this.

When I talk with young associates how many hours they bill to client files, I ask them how many hours they are at the office on a typical day. Then I ask them how many hours they typically bill for. After we subtract the second number from the first, I ask them what they did with the remaining hours they were at the office.

I ask them whether they were wasting copious amounts of time not working on projects. I ask whether they on the internet reading the news or planning their next vacation. They respond no to all these questions. They say they were working on a file, but that they weren’t productive during the time that is missing from their timesheet.

This is a key point. They say they don’t think they were productive enough during their hours at the office, so they under-reported the time they put into any given file.

If this sounds like you, although your intentions are good, thinking like this can cause you to become exhausted. When you are exhausted, your mind isn’t as sharp as it should be, which means that you may find yourself feeling that all the hours you are putting in are not as productive as they could be … and round and round you go.

As an alternative to this approach, I suggest to young associates that they record the actual hours they work on a file and bill for them, whether they believe these hours have been productive or not.

I also tell them that few partners are going to tell them to bill their hours more accurately. I suspect most partners are not paying close attention to how young associates bill. They may also be waiting for young associates to figure out how to bill their time more accurately, which might be a reasonable way to determine who’s going to make it to partner and who isn’t.

It’s possible that some partners might want to get as many hours out of a young associate as possible because young associates are valuable workers. I don’t know if this often the case, but the possibility exists.

The result of these discussions is that the young associates I work with often begin to bill for the extra time each day that they are working. They realize they can bill for the time they spent editing a document. And for the time they spent talking with a partner about a file. And for the time they spent outlining a document.

An extra 45 minutes may not seem like much, but it adds up to 3.75 hours a week, and to 15.75 hours a month. Perhaps surprising, an extra 45 minutes a day of billable time comes to about 180 hours a year.

This last number is staggering. If your billable target is 1700 hours a year, you will have cheated yourself out of over 10% of your billable hours if you under-reported only 45 minutes a day. You may also have to scamper to get all your billable hours in before the end of December. Said another way, you will have worked an extra 4.5 weeks to meet your billable target that no one asked you to put in.

Tracking your non-billable hours accurately can be eye-opening, as well. When you do so, you may realize you have put in more hours at the firm than you thought. Knowing this may help you to say no, appropriately, when a partner asks you to create slides for a course he’s teaching at the law school, or for help writing a paper. You will be able to share that you’re already put in a large number of nonbillable hours this year, and that you’d prefer to not contribute to another nonbillable project until you’ve reached your target billable hours for the year.

When I meet with a young associate, I show them a simple Excel spreadsheet that they can use to track their billable and non-billable hours. I’ve recreated it several times. It takes me about 15 minutes each time I do it.

If you’re comfortable working in Excel, you can create one with a little thought. If you’re uncomfortable working in Excel, don’t read the next five paragraphs because I’m going to give instructions on how to build your own spreadsheet. Instead, drop down to the paragraph where I tell you that I’ll email you a copy of the spreadsheet I’ve built if you send me an email.

If you want to build your own spreadsheet, first determine how many weeks you want to have for vacation and subtract that number from 52. For example, 52–4 = 48.

Next, divide the number of billable hours you are required to put in each year by the number of weeks you will work in a year. This is the number of billable hours you will want to put in each week, on average. For example, 1700/48 = 35.4.

Next, create a row in an Excel spreadsheet for each week you will work. In the first column, enter the number of hours you have billed for each week as the year progresses.

Now here’s an important step. You will want to create a second column so that you can track the number of hours you should have put in to meet your target. This number will be 35.4 in our example.

Next, create a third column where you will track the difference between these the first column and the second column. This the number of hours you fell short of your target on a given week, or the number of excess hours you put in.

Next, create a fourth column where you will keep a running total of the numbers calculated in column three. This is the total number of hours that you have fallen behind your goal, or exceed your goal, to reach your target hours.

If the number of hours you work normally exceeds the number you need to put in, then you can choose to either take on less billable work, or take an additional week of vacation during the year. If you choose to take on less billable work, then you might want to add an evening yoga class or spin class to encourage you to leave the office earlier.

If you don’t want to build your own Excel spreadsheet, you can send me an email at Patricia@TurnerPsychologyCalgary.com I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the spreadsheet I’ve built to help you track your billable hours more accurately.

Good luck with tracking your billable time. Many of my clients tell me this is all it takes for them to get their burnout under control.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you would like support, contact me to schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.


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