More Firms Cut or Change Billable Hours for First Year Associates

cashinhand2.JPGDan has posted thoughts on the problems of billable hours, Frank noted students trying to impact the way firms behave, and I have suggested that one’s firm plan to cut first year associate billables completely is one to watch. Apparently a shift is indeed occurring. In the past month one firm, Strasburger & Price of Dallas, Texas, has decided to modify the first billable requirement and others are trying changes as well. Strasburger has cut billables to 1,600 from 1,920 but “will require incoming associates to spend 550 hours shadowing senior attorney mentors, participating in training sessions and working on pro bono projects.” So the total is now 2,150 which may be less than the 1,920 assuming that the previous figure expected associates to shadow, train, and perform pro bono on top of that base. A couple of firms have decided to offer a track with less hours and less pay. Whether choosing the fewer hours track allows one, at least as policy, to be on the same partner track as others is unclear.

Perhaps the most radical move is from Howrey which is trying to implement a pure performance-based model. In addition to hours, the factors to be examined will include “writing, deposition, trial practice, and client presentation skills.” Although a partner is supposed supervise associates and make sure they have opportunities for such experiences, this model seems likely to run into the problems of that the reduced billable strategies seek to address. Partners simply become too busy to oversee such programs. Another problem is that this group will come from a system where lack of training (or training by fire) was the norm so a reference to how or why they should focus on such duties could be missing. One more question is what happens when an associate is paired with a poor match? Like assigned advisors in school, those situations can be awful. The mentor may be bad at the mentoring or may not want to do it. The two participants may just not have personalities that work well together.

In any event, for those of you interviewing as students or employers it may be that the legal profession is experiencing a change. Insofar as a new law-school graduate can find a position that offers more chances to learn and experience the complexities of the practice of law with less pay, take that job. You will probably be happier. You may even work more just because you like the work. And you will gain skills if not wisdom that will open career opportunities both within and outside the firm where you began.

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4 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    As an associate at a law firm, I’m quite interested to see how the firm will evaluate “writing, deposition, trial practice, and client presentation skills.”

    There’s obviously no objective measure of those skills; what one partner sees to be great oral presentation skills may be a failure in the eyes of another. I’m also skeptical of the firm’s ability to usefully “grade” written material. At least in my practice, written briefs are a collaborative effort, with multiple people making contributions even before the first truly complete “draft” is finished.

    Compensation and promotion based on billable hours was instituted not merely for the administrative convenience of the firms, but also to prevent associates from the unfairness of being compensated based on wholly subjective measures often tied up in politics. Say what you will about the billable hour — and it has plenty of faults, including its poor connection to actual value added — but it’s an objective measure not prone to politicking.

    If firms do move en masse to subjective evaluations, I would expect a quick backlash from associates who feel (rightly or not) that they’re getting the short end of the stick.

  2. Deven says:

    Adam,

    Great points. I think the Howrey model will pose many problems and you highlight the general ones about the possible reasons for a more neutral evaluation system. At my old firm I thought the culture of editing and feedback was tremendous. Whether the time to evaluate and in a sense grade would create confusion and may make the learning process muddy. One may have enjoyed the learning before but now one has to worry more about the perfect work. That pressure was there but this system may aggravate it.

  3. Mike M. says:

    There are also racial and gender issues to consider with “performance” based review. I’m not sure if any systemic studies have been done within legal employment, but in other arenas papers written by “Joan” or “Jafaru” are reviewed much more harshly than those written by “John” or “J.” If the liberal world of academia can’t overcome its unconscious racial and gender biases, I doubt the (comparatively) conservative world of law can.

  4. Deven says:

    Mike, thanks for the comment. I recall a friend’s mom was on the California Court of Appeals and up for election. It has been some time since I thought about this but as I remember it, the first time she ran she used her first name; her colleagues used first initials or male names. They all won but she had a lower percentage of the vote. The next time she ran she used her first inital and her numbers were right near her counterparts’ numbers.

    The other comment seems to point to part of your idea. Hours have problems as they turn the practice into a grind but they may help reduce the politics and subjective aspects of promotions at firms.