Why I Work So Much, Part One a/k/a Eight Hours Isn’t Really Eight Hours

We all know that the practice of law demands long hours.  We went to law school knowing what was coming for us at the end.  All that hard work, late nights, studying studying studying.  It would just lead to more hard work and late nights.  And more studying.  But perhaps we weren’t completely prepared for the magnitude and sheer volume of that work. Or more likely, our parents and other assorted loved ones were unprepared for the loss of the pleasure of our company, to quite this degree.  So if you’ve found yourself fielding needling queries from the aforementioned loved ones about why you work such long hours, I give you this week’s blog post.  Feel free to print it out and mail it to them.  Or just retweet it at them.  Thanks for doing that, by the way.

So here’s part one of the reason I work so much: I worship the god of billable hours.  But it’s probably more accurate to say that my firm worships at the god’s altar, and I am the sacrifice brought to assuage that god’s wrath.  My firm suggests (read: requires) that each associate bill a minimum of eight hours a day.  When my mom heard this, she was thrilled.  “You only have to work eight-hour days!” she exclaimed.  Um.  No.

Bear with me as I digress a bit and explain how billables work.  (Trust me: you can just send this to your well-meaning-but-clueless friends and family and save yourself the half hour it could take to explain.)  An hour has sixty minutes.  One-tenth of an hour is six minutes, and we bill our time in six-minute intervals.  So .1 is six minutes, .2 is twelve minutes, .3 is eighteen minutes, and so on.  We have to keep track of what we do almost every second of every day, and have to make sure it adds up to at least our eight-hour minimum.  Some days, when you spend the entire day researching or writing a brief, it’s easy.  You’re honestly working eight-plus hours for the client, so that’s what you bill, and it’s clean.  But other days, you spend the entire day running around like a headless chicken, have an entire day full of .1’s on different files, spend ten hours in the office, and somehow still only end up with six hours of billables.  Depressing; how does this happen?

Usually, if I want to bill eight hours, I have to spend at least nine hours in the office.  But it often ends up being ten hours, sometimes more.  There are three main reasons for this: first, the partners, second my fellow associates and the staff, and third, what I like to think of as reality.  Reality is all life that thrives outside of Neptune.


Probably the main reason I work so much is my supervising partner.  His name is Rocky, and as I mentioned last week, I adore and respect him.  He’s an exceptional storyteller, a skill honed from thirty-plus years as a trial lawyer.  I have high regard for his abilities as a lawyer, and for his humanity.  Now that I’ve said that, I can rip on him a bit.

A typical morning.  I’m in my office, trying to finish some dictation or edits.  My phone buzzes; I look over, and see Rocky’s name on the screen.  My heart does a schizophrenic simultaneous leap and drop.  I’m always excited to get a new assignment, but I know from experience what a call from Rocky leads to.  “Could you come in here for a minute?” he asks.  I throw on my blazer, grab a legal pad, and hurry down the hall.  I walk into his office, pull the door shut, and sit in one of the comfortable chairs in front of his desk.

I’m grateful that those chairs are comfortable, because over the past few months, and the endless hours I’ve parked it there, my skinny-and-possibly-bony butt has worn a lawberry-blonde-shaped indentation in the chair on the left.  I sit down in the chair, and I wait for Rocky to turn around from his computer.  I notice the sandwich on his desk, and recognize this as an ominous sign.

Rocky is answering emails.  And checking the news. I sit, and I wait.  Billing zero hours.  Finally he turns around and sees me.  We spend a few minutes (let’s call it .2, shall we?) discussing client business.  Awesome.  That’s billable.  Then he takes a bite of his sandwich.  And chews.  Non-billable. Then he remembers something Trump did that morning, and he tells me about.  Naturally, it being the proper first-year-associate thing to do, I take the bait, and we end up having a half-hour discussion about presidential politics.  Thirty minutes – that’s .5! – down the drain!  All non-billable!

This happens several times in a typical day.  I can accumulate over an hour of non-billable hours just by going into Rocky’s office.  So when he calls me in there, I make sure I bring other client matters to discuss with him.  That way, in between his sandwich bites and political discussion, I can at least squeeze out some billables.

Associates and Staff

I work with a really great group of people.  And yes, I’m still careful not to get too close to anyone and not to make friends with the secretaries, but I do my share of listening to my co-workers, a/k/a my fellow humans.  One secretary has a sinus infection, and she wants to tell me about it (.2).  Another’s son had a DUI over the weekend, and she wants me to recommend a criminal attorney (.1).  Our paralegal just bought a new car and wants to detail its features for me (.1).

As I walk back to my office, I pass the office of an associate who’s working on another chunk of a case that I’m also on.  I go in, sit down, and we discuss the case.  So far, this is good.  Billable.  And then I bring up the ridiculous name Kim Kardashian gave her son.  And being the typically extroverted litigators, we riff on the truly evil Kardashians for a good twelve minutes.  (You know this!  .2!)

Real Life

Please sit down; this will shock you.  Ready?  Ok.  I am a human being.  Sometimes I have to eat.  I have to use the bathroom and I have to see a doctor.  I get texts, and sometimes I tweet.  I have to get my shoes fixed and my clothes tailored.  Sometimes stuff in my condo breaks and I have to wait for it to be repaired.  Many of these things can’t be taken care of on the weekends.  Ok, so the tweeting can.  But #lawtwitter is really great during the day, and I hate to miss out.  But I digress.

I can order lunch in, of course.  And in this city I have an infinite number of options, regardless of the kind of salad I want to eat that day.  But being a human, I crave air in addition to food.  So occasionally I venture out of the grey walls and intermittent fluorescent lighting lining our offices, stagger out into the cold air, and blink up at the sun, feeling unworthy of its warmth.  Freedom, I think to myself.  True freedom.  I pick a direction – perhaps left, sometimes right – and begin walking.  Block after block, I pass restaurants, judging them to be not quite right for that day.  Finally, I see one that appeals to me: Italian.  I pull open the heavy glass door and enter into a cloud of garlic and olive oil.  Heaven.  I order my stuff, and drop down into a chair by the door to wait.  I check my watch: I left my office fifteen minutes ago.  Ten more minutes pass before my antipasti salad is handed to me.  I pay, and walk back to the office as quickly as four-inch stilettos will allow me.  The entire trip cost me forty valuable minutes, during which I didn’t bill a second to a single client.  If you’re keeping track, that’s .7 of non-billable time.

Any errand I have to run takes me out of the office for close to an hour.  So add that on to the eight hours I have to bill.  I get coffee?  Three minutes; five if I run into a friend who works down the hall; that’s .1 down the drain.  Easily twelve (.2!), if she wants to tell me about her kids.  And honestly, if someone compliments my outfit, that’ll lead to a ten-minute conversation.  A trip to the bathroom is five minutes (another .1).

And so it goes: it’s easy to see how two hours or more vanish daily into the sludgy swamp that comprises non-billable time.  This is painful, but it is true.   This is the reality of the practice of the law.  We say eight hours, but we don’t really mean.  So although it may sound like I waste time, I don’t.  Honestly, it’s hard to work an entire day without losing any time unless you’re a robot.  As long as we remain human beings, lawyers have to expect to lose time during an average day.  It’s just the nature of the business.  Eight hours is not really eight hours in a law firm.


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