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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am concerned about being inefficient and spending too much time on projects. How much of my own time should I cut?

A: None. Zero. Zilch. Seriously. Failing to record all of the time you spent on a project is one of the most self-destructive practices that can trap new lawyers. It is particularly insidious, because new lawyers typically cut their time with the best of intentions.

Some new lawyers fail to record all their time because they are concerned about charging clients too much. This is a valid concern, and new lawyers need to focus on providing value to clients. But as a new lawyer, you have very little perspective on how much time projects are likely to take or how much value they will provide to the client.

If clients could solve complex legal problems themselves, they would not come to law firms. It is normal to encounter unexpected twists and turns as you work to resolve thorny legal issues.

And clients may already be paying for less of your time than you imagine. In recent years, it has been a “buyer’s market” for legal services. Clients have been aggressive about asking for (and getting) discounts and write-offs.

New lawyers may also cut their time because they don’t want to appear to be inefficient for fear that senior lawyers won’t give them more work. But again, new lawyers have little perspective on how much time is “too much.”

It is quite possible that the senior lawyer thinks the project was fairly complex and that you did not take too much time. If you simply cut your own time, you cheat yourself out of a discussion with the assigning lawyer about whether you actually were inefficient – and ways to become more efficient in the future.

And what happens the next time you get a similar project? If you failed to record all your time on the first project, you will be tempted to do it again. Otherwise, you are likely to appear to have become less efficient over time. Thus, the self-destructive spiral begins. You can easily end up with an hours deficit that you cannot overcome.

Then there is the trust issue. Firms regularly counsel associates not to cut their own time. Still, with surprising frequency, the practice comes to light. The reaction among senior lawyers is uniformly negative. If other lawyers find out you have cut your own time, they are likely to wonder why you don't care about the firm's policies and why you are so cavalier about the firm's financial success. They may also ponder what other policies you choose to ignore.   

If you think you are off-track on a project or otherwise spinning your wheels, check in immediately. Record all your time, and if you have concerns, have a discussion with the assigning attorney. If the senior lawyer decides to write off some of your time, the lawyer may want to show the client that the firm reduced the bill.

I have a legal and environmental policy position in Seattle, and I recently oversaw the legal work for the construction of a $1 billion wastewater treatment plant.

The treatment plant required constructing several massive underground tunnels. One of the contractors (actually a joint venture of some of the world’s largest contractors) got its tunneling machine stuck underground. The contractor could not get it to budge, and delays mounted. Ultimately, we hired outside counsel and sued for $154 million.

In reviewing the firm’s bills, we were not particularly concerned with the work of any individual associate on any particular legal issue. We were more concerned about whether the firm understood our goals, was staffing efficiently, communicated regularly and was providing strategic advice.

After a jury trial, we obtained a net jury verdict of about $130 million. Total legal fees and costs were approximately $15 million. Given the verdict, that did not seem excessive.

But there was more: The firm figured out a way to recover all of our legal fees and costs from the opposing party – except for about $100,000.

If any of the associates at that firm cut their own time, they simply gave the opposing party a gift. They also threw away some of their vacation time.

Do not cut your own time.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. 

2 Comments

Courtney Gabbara

Grover, I am a huge fan of your blogs! Such great insight that I think young/newer lawyers would appreciate.

Grover E. Cleveland

Thanks, Courtney! Feel free to send me questions! I love answering them—and hearing others’ perspectives.

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