Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Billable Hours: Government Law Edition

In the family-friendly land of government law, "billable hours" is not such a bad word. Yes, it turns out that we still have them (where I am anyway) but they are mainly for budgeting purposes. "Billing" is such a loose term. "Billing" hours allows us to keep tabs on what government services and agencies use our time the most. Also, we do have some external clients that get actual bills.

The lawyers in my division of local government have a billable hour requirement. But it's a whole different animal than in private practice. I present....a demonstration:

Last week, I walked into my office and saw it. The dreaded billable hour spreadsheet. It was just sitting there, so-very-casually, on my desk. A bomb-detonator of emotion disguised as a harmless piece of paper. If you practice law in any private non-contingency-fee-based firm, you know what I'm talking about. You know the horror, the fear, the heart-stopping, body-paralyzing terror of the billable hour spreadsheet. It tells you, with pretty graphs and tables and formulas, exactly how far ahead (or in my case, usually behind) you are in reaching your billable hour goal (and from getting the life sucked out of your career).

My eyes scanned the numbers until they settled on my Number: 126. 

126 hours for my very first month at the firm. "I guess it's not HORRIBLE," I thought. But even as I thought that, I instinctively winced. At my other firms, I was required to bill at least 155 hours each month. My current number would be 29 hours short. That is almost 3.5 full days worth of work. I winced again. Well, it made sense. I took two sick days and spent two full days in non-billable training. Plus, it was a little slow going at first. 

I turned over the spreadsheet and sat heavily in my chair. That's when I noticed a bright orange sticky on the back of the paper. There, in pretty, feminine hand-written scrawl were the words, "Great job on your first month!"

What? Great job? I looked at the spreadsheet again which had a notation that my billable hour requirement was 1500 a year. I quickly did the math....wait, that came out to only 125 hours a month! Holy crap! 

So what would have been 29 hours short in my private practice attorney job was, in fact, 1 hour above my current billable hour requirement. And I wasn't even TRYING to meet my billable hour requirement that first month. I really wanted to do a happy dance but I was too deep into shock to move a muscle. 

Later in the day, my boss popped into my office and told me "good job" in person. She then commented, "We can always tell when someone comes from private practice. They are meticulous about their billing." I almost felt wrong accepting her praise. 126 hours was barely any effort on my part. In private practice, I would be scolded and reprimanded. They would demand that I come up with a plan for increasing my billable hours and insist on weekly follow-ups until I was on-track again. 

I'm still in disbelief about how amazing it is to be a government lawyer. If you can manage the discipline and long hours of private practice, you will succeed as a government attorney. And may even have a leg up.

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