More Firms Cut or Change Billable Hours for First Year Associates

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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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:


    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.