More Firms Cut or Change Billable Hours for First Year Associates
Dan 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.