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Like clockwork – how billable hours turned me off private practice

When I started law school I was working as a legal admin for a large Seattle law firm supporting some of the biggest players in land use and real estate. While I lacked the pedigree this firm usually gravitated toward, I leveraged experience and contacts to land an amazing internship, which ultimately led me to a position as a full-time associate at a reputable mid-sized Pacific Northwest law firm. With many new lawyers fighting for jobs, I was humble and grateful for this opportunity.

As a new associate my focus was to assist developers and corporations with land use permits and in-depth title review for property acquisition and use. I quickly fell in love with the work and considered each new title document I had to review as its own whodunit mystery. I often felt as if I was on an exciting adventure, trudging down overgrown paths looking for that hidden fence.

Building relationships with title companies and municipalities was key and it became one of my favorite aspects of the job. I loved my work and looked forward to it every day. But there were other aspects too, and they began to not only pull me away from the job that I loved but to also change my perception of it.

The billable hour. A simple enough concept. Write down everything you do in a day and charge it to the client. The requirement to record a minimum of 35 to 40 hours each week was an extremely low firm requirement. I should have easily met this and been happy, right…? Wrong.

The billable hour turned the practice I loved into a balancing act. I wanted to do the best work possible, which meant spending extra time digging deeper into documents or tracking down the right person with whom to establish a rapport.  Rushing these things might compromise the quality of work or the relationship I was building. But taking time would also drive a client invoice too high. On top of that was the pressure to meet the firm’s associate hours requirement, which I wouldn’t reach if I didn’t record the time.

The stress of accounting for all my day and worrying about spending too much time investigating and building relationships to be successful, ultimately diminished my love of the job and drove me away from private practice.

Almost ten years of working with legal technology later, I’m happy to say I’ve not charged a single billable hour, but I often wonder if I would have continued my practice if I was able to leverage today’s legal technology.

When I was working in private practice, it was difficult to come up with a reasonable time estimate for title review work, which made it almost impossible to create a flat fee structure the law firm would find acceptable. There was no way to review the work I did for other clients in a single place. Nothing to tell me how many hours I spent for the same type of work across clients or title companies, how complex the work was or what roadblocks I encountered. Instead, I had to rely on my memory or spend hours reviewing notes in old Redwell files at the expense of multiple paper cuts from the heavy manila file folders (I may still have scars). This is no longer the case.

I now see that having a system of record with your legal work and invoicing and being able to group projects together is invaluable. Data and analytics driven solutions can help firms create alternative ways to work with clients, which can in turn relieve some of the stress, especially for new associates. Legal tech solutions will help inject some life back into the industry and enable young associates to focus on the parts of the job they love. The result? More well-rounded and hopefully more content counsel, and perhaps renewed sustainability in an industry that is rapidly losing its best and brightest.

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