Law.com Trendspotter: Remote Work Could Shift Big Law’s Billable Hour Focus From Quantity to Quality

Posted September 14th, 2021.

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Firms are beginning to realize that burning out their best and brightest is bad for business.

By Zack Needles

The Trend:

The combination of boundary-less remote work and white-hot demand across a number of practice areas has many associates on the brink of billable-driven burnout.

But there is a silver lining: some firms have taken notice not just of how productive their attorneys have been working from home, but how efficient they’ve been as well. And those firms have also begun to realize that happier, healthier attorneys might just be more valuable than a couple hundred extra billable hours each year.

The result could be a shift in the conversation around billables—one focused less on the quantity of hours being logged and more on the quality of the work being done.

The Driver:

The push to reduce billable hour requirements at some firms is, of course, aimed in part at improving attorney wellness and mental health.

In fact, easing back on billable hour targets is arguably the most important measure a firm can take if it’s truly serious about improving attorney wellbeing.

As Jarrett Green, a wellness consultant and former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom attorney, noted to Law.com’s Dylan Jackson earlier this year: “You can give people thousands of vacation hours a year. But if you don’t want to decrease billable hours, then nobody will take it.”

But there are undeniable bottom-line benefits here too. For one thing, less-stressed lawyers with more manageable workloads are more likely to stick around. For another, they’re more likely to consistently do quality work.

In other words, burning out your best and brightest is bad for business.

I’m interested to hear what you think: Are high billable hour requirements ultimately leading to diminishing returns when it comes to client service? Let me know at zneedles@alm.com.

The Buzz:

As Law.com’s Jackson reported last week, New York-based Sanford Heisler Sharp is reducing its annual billable hour minimum from 2,160 hours to 1,920 hours, or 20 hours fewer per month.

David Sanford, chairman and co-founder of the plaintiffs firm known for representing plaintiffs suing celebrities, Big Law firms and major companies such as Facebook, said the shift to working from home has increased efficiency among the firm’s attorneys, so much so that lawyers at the firm billed nearly 2,400 hours on average last year.

“The pandemic has taught us a lot of lessons. One of the lessons is that people can be, and often are, a lot more efficient than they were before. We have noticed that and we have appreciated it,” Sanford said. “And so we wanted to recognize everyone’s excellence. The firm has done exceptionally well in the course of the last two years.”

The retroactive change is also a nod to the firm’s efforts to give its attorneys a better work-life balance.

“We thought it would be important to send a signal to everyone that the firm is committed to more of a work-life balance and want to commit to that in the form of a billable hour reduction,” Sanford said.

The firm’s 1,920 figure includes what would be traditionally known as nonbillable time, such as business development and administrative work.

That aspect is every bit as important as the overall billable target being lowered.

As Law.com’s Patrick Smith reported last month, many lawyers feel they’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on nonbillable tasks.

A recent survey, by productivity automation company ZERO, found that close to 70% of timekeepers think they work too many hours, and 82% believe they spend too much time on nonbillable tasks like administrative work and email management.

Sending a credible message that a firm cares about work-life balance is important for retention purposes—Sanford noted that the changes at his firm allow it to better compete with its chief talent rivals in Big Law and government—but it’s also important for maintaining high-quality client service.

Altman Weil consultant Jim Cotterman told Law.com’s Jackson that being overloaded with work ultimately leads to productivity declines, problem solving lags and increased risk of malpractice.

Recognizing that, Orrick has instituted a required 40-hour “unplugging” vacation that counts toward bonuses and has designated “unplug buddies” to cover client needs in their absence. The firm also hands out “wellness dollars” to associates, to be used for self-care after intensive months of billing more than 250 hours.

Also, in November, Orrick launched a caregiver relief program for parents who cannot rely on outside child care, where parents can work at 80% of their schedule while still getting full compensation. Twelve associates participated—three men and nine women.

Siobhan Handley, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s chief talent officer, told Law.com’s Jackson the firm understands that even the best and brightest can burnout.

Allowing that to happen simply does not make good business sense.

“This is always a challenge in a service profession and global environment—and we’re experimenting together how we manage it today and for the new workplace. We recognize that sustaining top performance requires making time for recovery and self-care,” Handley said.

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