Skirting the Ceiling: Beating the Billable Hour

We've all heard the age-old idiom, "Time is money." In the legal world, the time that matters even more than time spent with the client and time spend on the job away from family and friends is the time that can be billed. At law firms, meeting your billable hours target can be a make or break not only for the year but maybe even your career.  

Last month, we talked about how the gender parity gap increases as lawyers move up the law firm food chain. In particular, I highlighted these unsettling facts from the National Association of Women in Law’s 2017 edition of their Survey on Promotion and Retention of Women in Law Firms:

  • Women are hired in nearly equal numbers as men at the associate level, but, currently, women make up only 19% of equity partners and 30% of non-equity partners. These numbers maintained for the past decade.
  • Women make up only 25% of firm governance roles, like managing partner or a member of the compensation committees. This number doubled in the past decade.
  • 97% of firms report that their top-earner is a man. 70% of firms have 1 or no women in their top 10 earners.

In response to reviewing these numbers for the first time, I contemplated how gender expectations placed on both men and women might affect these numbers. This month, I want to dig into how the billable hour plays a significant role in impeding gender equality.

How gender issues get grafted onto on a seemingly neutral standard

The billable hour is commonly understood to be a neutral means of measuring attorneys' progress towards achieving their goals for the year. It is thought to mean an objective tool that disregards gender and race while homing in on the individual's experience, as indicated by the assigned rate, and commitment, as conveyed by the total number of time billed. We perceive billable hour targets to constitute the same bar for everyone wishing to make a certain bonus or be considered for a promotion and understand that the bar is ordinarily based on external client demands and increased competition from other law firms.

Despite this, the authors of Retaining and Advancing Women in National Law Firms, presented at the Stanford Law School Women in Law Policy Practicum, found in their research that, “Female law firm partners have billing rates that are, on average, 10% lower than those of male law firm partners, even when controlling for experience and market. In the case of junior associates, gender differences in billing rates persist despite the fact that such associates are often paid on a ‘lock-step’ basis."  The Stanford study authors considered the following facts as to why this might be true: 

  • High billable hour requirements favor men because men do not typically have the same level of family care responsibilities as women
  • Partners may assign more valuable work to men because they perceive men to be more dedicated to work and not conflicted by family obligations
  • Law firms may give women qualitatively different billable work to do or more vital yet non-billable tasks, such as mentoring or recruitment

While these may be prime factors to consider, the reason for this discrepancy cannot be pinpointed precisely as it varies from firm to firm and likely stems from the realities of how men and women chose to live their lives and both implicit bias based on gender stereotypes in the workplace.

What you can do to beat the billable hour: Take control of the billable hour by reporting time accurately. 

Not only is the billable hour affected by implicit bias, what's more is that it is often under-utilized by the attorneys it is met to assist. My evidence professor, a true fount of wisdom, expressed to my class recently that in all of her years of private practice, one of the things that truly frustrates her most is how women under-utilize the billable hour. She explained in that she routinely observed women in law, especially young female associates, short themselves billable hours. Our professor said many women feel that they should have done their work in less time or are uncomfortable with charging such a high billable rate to begin with, so they report less time than they actually worked. She is explained that this is a two-fold problem:

  1. Reporting an inaccurate number of hours affects what the supervising attorneys report to the client. 
  2. Fudging numbers also poses a problem in that it makes it incredibly difficult for supervising attorneys to track your progress.

So how do these things work in tandem? Say the target time for an assignment is 1.5 hours. The first time it was assigned to you, it took you 3 hours to complete, and the second time it required you 2.5 hours, but both times you reported it as having taken 1.5 hours. As my professor explained, when you’re a new associate, you’re not supposed to be able to complete the assignment in the target time just yet. It’s better to record your time honestly and accurately, so your supervisor can track your improvement, offer you help and advice when needed, and gauge where you fall amongst your peers.

Altering the numbers is often unnecessary as partners oftentimes possess the ability to discount the time for the client when appropriate. Take control by reporting time accurately! If you sell yourself short, everyone else will have no choice but to follow suit. Instead, embrace what you're worth.

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