Numerous law firms have administrative chores that all attorneys need to complete in order to fulfill management expectations. Many law firms have attorney evaluations that associates need to complete on an annual or more-frequent basis, and other shops have business development tasks that attorneys need to carry out in order to satisfy requirements. One of the most ubiquitous requirements of many firms is that attorneys need to log their billable hours by a certain time every week. Since bills are usually sent to clients on a monthly basis, I always wondered why so many law firms have the somewhat arbitrary deadline of requiring attorneys to record their time on a weekly basis.
Each firm I worked at before starting my own shop had a weekly deadline for recording billable time for a given week. Some firms made this deadline on Fridays, and other more forgiving firms made this deadline on a Monday so that attorneys had a little extra time after a week had concluded to record their time. Firms usually have different kinds of punishment if an attorney does not record their billable time by the deadline. Sometimes, the punishment was different managers coming by the attorney’s office and telling the attorney that expectations were not satisfied, kind of like that scene in “Office Space.”
At some law firms at which I worked, the punishment for failing to submit time entries each week was severe. One firm gave every attorney one free pass per year for not recording their time entries by the deadline. However, each time after that, the attorney would lose a percentage of their bonus for each instance that they missed the deadline. If you wanted to provide an excuse for not meeting the billing deadline and retain full bonus eligibility, you had to write a memo to the Executive Committee of the firm, which was a daunting task. At another one of the firms I worked, each week, a firmwide email would go out listing all of the attorneys who did not record their time entries by the weekly deadline. This was pretty embarrassing since people would often poke fun at the attorneys who blew the deadline because these folks were outed in front of the whole firm.
There are a few reasons off the top of my head for why a weekly billable hours deadline makes sense. For one, this can make it less likely that attorneys will forget what tasks they performed, and accordingly, help attorneys bill for more time. We have all probably had to go through the process of reconstructing what we did in a given day far in the future, and this is not a pleasant task. Sure, you can review emails and phone logs to get a rough idea of what you did for clients in a given day, but this only captures so much. By requiring attorneys to log and submit time entries every week, law firms can ensure that attorneys are less likely to forget tasks they completed.
However, attorneys have billable hour requirements at most firms, and it is in their best interest to record as many hours as possible. As a result, they usually do not need an artificial deadline to ensure that the most amount of hours are billed. Accordingly, trying to ensure robust billable entries should not justify a weekly billable hour deadline.
Another reason why many firms may have weekly billable hour requirements is so that they can keep tabs on attorneys more frequently. Receiving reports each week can help managers figure out which attorneys are too busy with work and which attorneys may need more work. This can help managers know whom to give assignments to in order to ensure more efficient workflow. Moreover, if an attorney is not billing enough hours, managers can intervene sooner with a weekly billable hour deadline to ensure that the attorney knows that they are not meeting expectations and that they should bill more hours.
However, billable hour requirements at many firms ensure that attorneys have an incentive to seek out more work if they need it. In addition, by setting expectations about how many hours an attorney needs to bill in a year, lawyers should know from the get-go if they are meeting — or failing to meet — expectations. Accordingly, it seems like weekly billable hour deadlines just create a hardship without solving problems.
I would love to hear from law firm partners and administrative professionals about why so many shops have weekly billable hour requirements. Perhaps law firm bosses do not realize that such deadlines can impose huge hardships on attorneys, especially if they unexpectedly cannot complete work tasks, are on vacation, or are facing a deadline with life matters that prevent them from easily submitting time entries. Law firms should only impose deadlines on attorneys if they are absolutely needed, and it seems like most shops can dispense with weekly billable hour entry deadlines.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].