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6 Ways to give your attorneys more billable hours

Does your firm still run on billable hours? If so, you’re probably running into the same problem as other firms using the same type of billing model: it’s hard to give all of your attorneys the hours they need to make their jobs profitable.

As a former attorney who graduated from law school when online legal research was a new phenomenon, I feel incredibly sorry for today’s young associates.

After all, many of my early billable hours were spent in a law library, chasing legal concepts from one row of dusty law books to another. It took a lot of time to develop legal theories back then, and all of those hours were good, honest, billable hours.

Today’s associates, however, are burdened with instant online search results.

Sure, some concepts still require hours of travel down internet rabbit holes, but those are rabbit holes that would have taken days to traverse back in the day.

Meanwhile, billable hour requirements – at least at large law firms – are on the rise. This is a conundrum not only for associates, but also for the partners who are charged with keeping them busy. That’s why this post is dedicated to helping partners find ethical ways to increase associate billing.

Here are the six top ideas we recommend:

#1: Use technology to the firm’s advantage

By now, just about every firm on the planet is using billing software and apps to track the almighty billable hour.

That’s not the only way that technology can help increase billable hour efficiency, however.

For example, have you considered whether your firm is also utilizing technology to streamline non-billable tasks? For example, if your attorneys and paralegals are wasting billable time by doing non-billable things like calendaring, wouldn’t it be wise for the firm to invest in a calendaring program that automates that time-intensive process?

Similarly, is the firm taking advantage of technologies that allow associates more opportunities to bill?

How many billable tasks can they accomplish on their phones or tablets? I’m sure there’s more than a few associates who would bill from the subway, train, or Uber if they had the right apps on their mobile devices.

Finally, are your teams using adequate collaboration platforms? Lots of wasted time can be saved if associates are responding to a partner’s edits and comments in real time.

#2: Provide quality training on the concept of billing

Sometimes, I think well-seasoned attorneys forget how hard it was to be young and dumb when it comes to billing. They’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve lost touch of how difficult those first few years can be.

Make things easier on new associates and paralegals by teaching them the realities of billing from the get-go.

Many new legal professionals assume that if they spend 10 hours a day in the office, they’ll easily bill nine and a half. Not so. It’s worth the time (no pun intended) to train them on all the tasks and habits that can drain billable time out of their day.

#3: Give associates billable credit for intra-office meetings

If you’ve ever had general counsel breathing down your neck about your law firm’s monthly bills, you know that one of their biggest complaints is the intra-office meeting where two or more attorneys are billing simultaneously on the same matter.

You also know that they complain even if those meetings are perfectly legitimate, and every attorney in the room is pulling their weight.

Nonetheless, many in-house counsel set limits on the number of attorneys who can bill for any one meeting.

If you find yourself in that situation, why not give those hours to an associate? Sure, the associate’s hourly rate may be less than yours, but associates are generally under much greater pressure to record billables than the people who employ them.

#4: Encourage (or mandate) daily timekeeping

I will admit that when I practiced law, I was a terrible time keeper. I was one of those annoying associates who had 53 sticky notes all over my office that I would gather at the end of the month as I tried to reconstruct my billable hours for client invoices.

Everyone reading this knows that is the dumbest way to keep track of your time – mainly because if you’re an honest person, you end up short-changing yourself every single month.

That’s why firms are wise to either encourage or mandate daily time keeping.

To reinforce that procedure, firms can set their billing software to close out time entries every week instead of every month. That way, associates quickly get in the habit of recording their time as it happens, or they risk losing billables (or at least getting in trouble for not staying on top of things).

#5: Stop the nonsense

There is so much wasted time within most law firms.

It seems like every single day, somebody has a birthday or a work anniversary or a trial victory that merits cake and ice cream. Somebody else wants to go to an extended lunch to discuss a case. There’s a required security training, a strategy meeting, and a workshop with the local bar association.

I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but maybe they can be consolidated.

Fans of the TV show The Office may scoff at the idea of consolidated parties, but they really can be a time-saver (thus allowing for additional billable time) if the firm has one party a month instead of seven.

Moreover, according to the Harvard Business Review, “70% of meetings keep employees from doing productive work.” If you want to help your attorneys increase their billable hours, consider rethinking the number of non-billable meetings they’re required to attend.

#6: Give billable credit to young associates for pro bono work

Of course, many firms have been giving associates billable credit for pro bono work for years.

Sadly, that practice dropped off dramatically during pandemic lockdowns, prompting some organizations to plead with firms for a return of pro bono practices.

Law firms, heed their call. After all, pro bono work isn’t just good for the world, it’s good for young attorneys.

Not only does pro bono work allow new attorneys to cut their teeth at things like depositions and trials, but helping less privileged individuals can actually be good for their mental health.

If pro bono work also gives some relief from their billable hour requirement, you will have happier associates (and we all know happy employees are more productive employees).

We realize that finding billable hours can be difficult for partners and associates. We hope these six tips ease the burden within your law firm.

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