Value billing

As you have no doubt noticed, there’s quite a bit of debate these days about traditional hourly billing vs. “value billing.”  I recently touched on the issue here.

I ran across a quotation today that put the controversy in a different light:

You don’t get paid for the hour. You get paid for the value you bring to the hour.

— Jim Rohn

So, how does that sit with you?  And a question for a bit of reflection: do you bring your full value to your billable hours?  If the answer is no, how can you do better?

Understanding your client’s business

I’ve long believed that newer associates (especially, but not exclusively) don’t understand their clients’ business and how business issues effect legal services.  Without understanding what the business context is for the legal issue you’re working on, it’s going to be difficult to know how important the issue is — i.e., is this a “bet the company” issue, or is it a fairly minor issue that neither demands nor permits extensive research and analysis?  Either end of that continuum is fairly easy to recognize, but knowing how to approach “middle” issues requires a bit more finesse.  A lawyer who provides excellent client service will know the scope of her client’s business, will understand the business context for the legal issues, and will include the business perspective in her advice to the client.

It’s equally critical for lawyers to understand the business and economics of the law firm in which they operate — the business concerns of the lawyer’s internal client.  How many lawyers have had to write down time of a junior associate because the work wasn’t efficient or wasn’t on point, thus inappropriate for the firm to bill to a client, therefore lost productivity for the firm?  Worse yet, how many lawyers have billed such time, not understanding that just because billable work is performed doesn’t mean that it’s payable?  Ouch.  And lawyers become managers-in-fact as they advance, it’s equally important that lawyers understand something about management and interpersonal business relationships — topics that may pay dividends in client development efforts as well.

So, one key aspect of professional development is getting some grounding in the business of your clients and your firm.  Read the business pages and the Wall Street Journal and get some grounding in basic business principles.

Incentives of pay, partnership, and purpose.

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog ran a nice post yesterday on the projections of BigLaw managing partners for 2007.  The post summarizes and discusses data from the Citigroup Private Bank’s forthcoming “Managing Partner Confidence Index,” supported by slides from the underlying study.

Not too surprisingly, most managing partners expect both revenues and expenses to increase.  44% of managing partners expect more than a 3% increase in billables, 82% expect some increase, and 73% expect the increase to be one of the primary drivers of revenue.  70% of MPs expect more than a 5% increase in expenses, and 91% expect lawyer salary and benefits to be the primary contributors to that increase.

Firms continue to hire associates (anecdotally, 93% of firms are planning for an increase), though they’re planning for rather small increases in the number of equity partnerships:  36% are expecting less than a 3% increase, 26% anticipate no change, and only 30% expect more than a 3% increase.  8% actually expect to reduce the number of equity partners.  (I’d love to see parallel data over the last 2-3 years on this.)

Dan DiPietro, who led the team conducting the study, comments that associates’ billables, though increasing, remain below the 1998-2000 levels, and that firms are hiring to make up for the shortfall in hours.  The WSJ Law Blog asks whether associates would prefer to see higher billable requirements (but better chances at making partner) or more associates (and less chance of making partner).  The comments seem to favor more hiring (or perhaps more accurately, a lighter workload for current associates) quite strongly, in large part because the likelihood of making partner is perceived to be low and the rewards are judged to be dubious.  No surprises there either, though the responses hardly qualify as scientifically accurate.

It also seems to me that the competition for partnership is just another step on the ladder for many high-performing lawyers rather than something that they pursue from a true desire to reach that goal, and that competitiveness for the sake of winning (whether the prize is truly desirable or not)  falls apart quickly when it faces a genuine challenge.  In other words, a person may compete through high school to get to a good college; compete through college because that’s the key to a good career; compete through law school either intentionally or because it was the least unappealing path (by family prescription, dislike of the sciences, or passivity); compete into a plum law firm job; compete to rise through the associate ranks… But find at some point that the cost of competing exceeds the value of the reward.  And that’s burnout.

So, perhaps the question should be, what reward will keep associates at firms, will keep them working hard, and will retain its luster long enough to maximize the return for all interested parties?  It isn’t money, and I’d suggest it isn’t partnership potential.  Instead, I think it’s rewarding work that’s intellectually engaging and meaningful, performed in a collegial setting and supported by good training.  It’s having a purpose and working in service to that purpose.  The purpose will vary from individual to individual: money, partnership, prestige, “saving the world,” representing certain points of view, and so on.  The challenge for firms, I believe, is finding a reasonable business opportunity that permits individuals to effect their individual purposes in a way that advances the corporate good and serves clients well.

Interesting new resources for women who are lawyers

One of my mother’s friends, Margie Pitts Hames, argued in the Supreme Court in 1971, in Doe v. Bolton, the companion case to Roe v. Wade.  She told me that when she went to the clerk’s office before arguing, she was told to put on her hat — because court reporters at that time were required to wear hats in court, and no one expected a woman to be anything other than a court reporter.   Dorothy Toth Beasley argued  for the other side,  later became Judge Beasley of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and literally left her mark on the court by having “and women” chiseled into the court’s credo “Upon the integrity, wisdom and independence of the judiciary depend the sacred rights of free men” in 1992.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then.  And yet….

It’s pretty common to see news items about women leaving the legal profession and the small percentage of women who make partner in large law firms.  A story I read recently in the Washington Post highlighted a website that includes forums on which female (and other groups) law students are sexually objectified and even threatened with physical violence.  I’ve posted about the challenges facing female litigators and about a woman who’s suing her firm for sex discrimination because (among other allegations) she claims she was told she was spending too much time at the office and too little with her family.

Although I seek to serve both men and women who practice law, it does seem to me that women at times face unique challenges that seem to persist for reasons both known and unknown.

I recently ran across Ms. JD, “an online community that provides a forum for dialogue and networking among women lawyers and aspiring lawyers.”  Ms. JD was created by a group of female law students from Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley), Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, NYU, Stanford, UCLA, UT Austin, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and Yale who are “concerned by the rates at which women opt out of the legal profession, the lack of representation of women in the highest courts and echelons of the legal community, and the role of gender in the progression of many women’s legal careers.”

Ms. JD will launch at a national conference co-hosted by Yale Law Women at Yale Law Schoolon March 31, 2007.  The goals of the conference are “(1) to foster professionally transformative alliances through new communications technologies, and (2) to share tools and strategies to enhance the experiences of women in law.”  I can’t attend the conference, but I would love to know what happens there.  I invite anyone who attends to contact me (see last paragraph of this post) with a report and comments that I will share here with or without attribution, as you prefer.


(A personal aside to the story about Margie Hames: I wish I could link to an online resource about Mrs. Hames.  She was a remarkable woman: smart, fierce, kind, funny, reverent, irreverent, and opinionated.  She died in 1993 at a much-too-young 60.  However, because everything of substance that I’ve found about her on the web takes either a pro- or anti-abortion stance, I’m not linking.  If you’re curious, Google.  But, please, don’t believe everything you read.)

Don’t count the billable hour out just yet.

Many lawyers and commentators like to criticize the billable hour as the source of all legal woes — or at least work/life balance challenges.  There’s a certain appeal to the argument since, after all, the idea behind the billable hour is that experienced attorneys know more and are more skilled and therefore can accomplish more for a client in a shorter time; nevertheless, though efficiency may increase, the workload never decreases because the overworked attorney “must” bill 2000+++ hours whether his fee is $185 or $585 per hour.

But Patrick Lamb, author of In Search of Perfect Client Service, has decreed that reports of the demise of the billable hour are greatly exaggerated.  This follows a previous announcement of the death, based on comments made at the law Firm Leaders Conference in San Francisco.

Lamb and other bloggers (including Chris McKinney, Ed Poll, and Bob Sutton, among many others) have made numerous posts on why the billable hour may have outlived its usefulness.

And for the billable hour… Well… Any publicity is good publicity, at least for now.

Success tips for lawyers (and some poetry, too)

Today I ran across a Law Practice Today article titled How to Be More User-Friendly, by Wendy L. Werner.  The article lists reminders of what lawyers need to do, be, or think about “to not just be tolerated by the rest of the world, but to flourish.”  Here’s the list, and I strongly encourage you to read the full article for amplification.  Though I’m not crazy about the tone of the article (which comes across to me almost as a primer on “how lawyers can learn to masquerade as humans”), the advice is well-taken.

*  Talk less, listen more.
*  Sharing information with those around you is not a bad thing.
*  Know what your colleagues are working on.
*  Being rigorous doesn’t mean being a jerk.
*  Risk is sometimes necessary to find new opportunities.
*  If you only spend time with lawyers, you won’t know how to talk to juries or clients.
*  Lawyers are frequently smart people — but lots of other people are smart too.
*  Diversity is a fact of life.  If you want a successful and smart organization, hire and promote a diverse work force.
*  Seek opportunities for feedback.
*  No matter what your level in the organization, find a mentor, coach or advisor.
*  Having fun at work isn’t a crime.
*  At the end of your life you probably won’t say — “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”



Email “addiction” experiment

I tried something new and different this week.

I left my Blackberry at my desk when I closed up shop for the day.

Now, granted, I work from home, so it isn’t such a big issue for me to go back to my desk, check email there, etc.  And I can hear my office phone ring from almost every part of the house, so it isn’t as if I was truly disconnected from my office ommunications.  Still, I didn’t check email while sitting with my family after dinner, I didn’t do “one last check” of email before I turning off the lights and going to sleep… And I didn’t do my first email check of the day until after I’d had breakfast, showered, and landed at my desk, whereas I usually check it as soon as I wake up.

I ran this experiment mostly as an integrity issue.  I’d urged a client not to keep her Blackberry on her bedside table overnight, and then it hit me — that’s what I do, too.  Running through the excuses (no, really, I do use it as my alarm clock) didn’t make me feel any better, so I decided to take my own advice.

What did I learn?

The sky didn’t fall in.  Not a single client fired me for failure to respond to an email within minutes.  (The corollary, of course, is that no client was in the midst of an urgent situation that would have prevented even this experiment.)  My down time was my own.  I wasn’t distracted, and I didn’t ask anyone to wait while I looked to see whether the latest incoming email needed my attention more immediately than my family did.  I was more present for conversation, and I didn’t even consider whether I should check email when I woke up briefly during the night.  (Not that I’d ever do that, of course.  Often.)  I was fully engaged in my personal life, and I returned to my work life with greater gusto in the morning.

I noticed that I felt no angst at all about allowing calls to roll to voicemail, but missing emails did give me great pause.  I’ve posted before on the distinction between “urgent” and “important” and I’ve realized that email registers as urgent for me, even though I know that at least 95% of it is not important.  How about you?

Imagine the irony when I ran across an article discussing email “addiction.”  I put addiction in quotes because, for me, in this situation, that’s slang.  Nevertheless, it was a nice experiment, I liked the results, and I think I’ll continue it in some form, though my email-accessible hours may be a bit more extended than they were during the last week.

Engagement: Another name for work/life balance?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a proponent of finding work/life balance AND a proponent of excellent client service.  Though others may disagree, I think the two can and must co-exist, and frankly I question whether a lawyer can deliver top-notch legal services without some form of balance — recognizing that “balance” means radically different things to different people.

But “work/life balance” tends to take a beating at times.  Some attorneys and some commentators think that work/life balance is a PC phrase for lazy lawyers.  And I’ve been recently mulling over another way of expressing WLB ideas such as having a life outside practice, creating time and habits that support both practice and personal life, and using energy boosts from recreation to buoy the focus and output required by practice.

Peter Vajda recently commented on “engagement,” which he went on to describe as “the experience of an employee who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. Folks who are ‘engaged’ proactively care about the future of their organization and are most often willing to invest, over and above, to ensure their organization’s success.”  Well said, Peter.

That thought dovetails with a book I finished reading over the weekend called The Power of Full Engagement.  I’ve recommended the book before based on a preliminary skim, but now that I’ve read it all the way through, it’s going on my “highly recommended resource” list for clients.  Its premise is that most of us move through our careers as if we’re marathon runners, working from stress to stress with little or no time for recovery — and that doesn’t turn out so well.  Instead, the authors recommend periods of strategic disengagement from work to facilitate regeneration, and that disengagement from work is generally engagement in some personal pursuit, whether that’s family time or an artistic hobby.  In other words, it’s what I’d call work/life balance in motion, the attribute of being a person who is a lawyer rather than a lawyer who also does XYZ on the side.

So, perhaps we should be talking about how lawyers can become more fully engaged in their practices and lives? Readers, I’m curious: does the concept of “full engagement” resonate with you more than the idea of “work/life balance”?

For new(ish) associates: Speak up!

Dan Hull, of What About Clients? blog fame, posted a key question that associates (really, all lawyers) must be able to answer at a moment’s notice: What are you thinking?  As Dan put it, “If a neuron fires in a brilliant young lawyer’s head, and no one hears it go off, did it even happen?”  Dan writes to encourage more senior lawyers to ask junior associates what they’re thinking and to teach those lawyers to volunteer their thoughts, and I couldn’t agree more.

But new(ish) lawyers are often uncomfortable volunteering their ideas, feeling that because they’re new and have a lot to learn about practice, it’s better (as Abraham Lincoln advised) to “remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  This fallacious belief is what Mark Herrmann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, refers to as the “potted plant” mistake.  That “wisdom” backfires in the law firm setting, though.  A new lawyer must add value immediately, and sharing questions or insights is the quickest way to do that.  (It goes without saying that these insights must be well-considered, right?)

What I like about Dan’s advice is that the simple question, “What are you thinking?” creates an atmosphere of collegial inquiry.  It not only allows more senior lawyers to get an insight into a newer lawyer’s thinking process, whether to reap the benefit of brilliance or to dispel a mistaken assumption before it causes harm, but also it open the opportunity for the newer lawyer to learn how the more senior attorneys are analyzing the issue at hand, sifting the important from the irrelevant, and cooking up an approach most likely to meet the client’s goals.

So, new(ish) lawyers, volunteer your thoughts, and ask what others working on your cases are thinking.  (Don’t forget to ask paralegals and secretaries, too.  You might be surprised at the insight that these people can have, and it’s a painless way to remind yourself that non-attorney legal professionals can make a variety of valuable contributions if provided the opportunity.)