Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year

Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year

by Valerie Fontaine
Special to
January 10, 2011

If you're like most people, you made New Year's resolutions to lose weight, eat healthier and exercise more. But did you make some resolutions to shape up your professional life as well? January is a good time to begin taking stock and plotting some moves to advance your career.

In this series of articles we'll explore each of these suggested resolutions to get your career in great shape for 2011 and beyond:

1.Maximize the benefits of your working hours
2. Create a niche
3. Promote yourself
4. Manage perceptions
5. Boost your business acumen
6. Fine-tune your people skills
7. Build a mentor network
8. Create a "Me File"
9. Ace your performance review
10. Write your personal development plan

We might as well get started now!


Although law firms increasingly are experimenting with flat fees and alternative billing arrangements, billing by the hour remains the norm for most legal work. Furthermore, nearly all large law firms use billable hours as a component in determining partner compensation and the vast majority tie associate base compensation and bonuses to hours. Therefore, in a lawyer's life, time literally is money.

The great advantage of hourly billing is that it allows lawyers to readily plan and measure their productivity. A significant downside, however, is the incredible pressure placed on attorneys to continually increase their workload to maximize profits. In August 2002, the ABA released the results of a study conducted by its Commission on Billable Hours. The study found that, in 1965, lawyers billed between 1,200 and 1,600 hours a year. By 1980, a full workload was measured at 1, 600 to 1,800 billable hours per year. In contrast, today that number for big firm associates is from 2,000 to upward of 2,400 to earn top bonuses, and about 1,900 for partners.

Unfortunately, these billing requirements don't include time spent on other activities vital to a thriving law practice. In order to get ahead, successful attorneys also must participate in administrative or management duties, recruiting and mentoring, pro bono work, continuing legal education, client development, and community or bar association activities. Therefore, you need to figure out not only how to produce vast quantities of excellent billable work, but also how to squeeze in time for these nonbillable essentials (not to mention finding time for family, fun and sleep).

While most attorneys at all levels of seniority log long hours, not all hours are created equal. To get the most out of the hours you put in, you need to work not just hard, but smart. Most firms have target numbers for associate billable hours and, even if not explicit, at least expectations for partner billable and non-billable hour contributions.

Those numbers are merely a baseline. You also must know how many hours actually are required for you to be successful. Find out what the average billables are for attorneys at your level at your firm as a whole, and in your department specifically, to make sure you are at least keeping up. Determine, also, the amount of time others are spending on nonbillable activities such as firm administration, pro bono work, client development, and bar association or community activities. Then do your best to boost your numbers towards the top of those lists.

Tip: Before you start to work on a project, make sure you get clear direction from the client and/or supervising attorney to minimize the chances of spinning your wheels requiring a write-off of your hard-worked hours.

Beyond hard numbers, look at your firm culture. Expectations differ from organization to organization, and sometimes between departments or offices of the same firm. When must you be working? You need to look around to see for yourself: Are the powerful partners and the up-and-comers in the office late every night, or early every day? If you are not the Top Dog, when does your immediate supervisor arrive and leave? Are they in on weekends? You need to be seen working when the people who matter can see you work! Are they out at Bar Association events or participating on firm committees? If so, you should be there where they can see you, also.

Secondly, for whom should you be working? Which attorneys are responsible for originating and/or supervising the most important and profitable matters in your firm? They most likely will be the most powerful people in your firm. Those are the people whose opinions carry the most weight when it comes to partnership or other advancement decisions. Let those partners know you would like to work with or for them. Volunteer to assist on some of their big matters. When it comes time for important career development decisions, do not be caught in the backwaters, or find yourself championed only by the firm's lightweights.

Do not put all your eggs in one basket, however. Fortunes and firm politics change and people leave firms. Therefore, it is important to have your work known by a number of influential partners.

Also, on which matters should you be working? Learn which clients, practice areas and cases or deals are most important to the success of your firm. Which generate most of the revenue? And, which have the most potential for future growth? Endeavor to work on those. Also, note which areas of practice are growing in the marketplace in general, and your firm in particular. There will be more room for partners in a hot practice area than in one where the workload is not expanding.

These considerations apply to nonbillable hours also. Which pro bono, charitable or community activities are championed by the most important partners or clients in your firm? Nonbillable activities give you the opportunity to follow your passions, but if you do not have a particular cause dear to your heart, consider involvement with those supported by your firm. Your time will be well spent on activities valued by those who matter.

In summary, beyond racking up as many billable hours as possible, pay close attention to your firm's culture and hierarchy of power. Observe who has the most clout and what type of work is most valued. Furthermore, spend your non-billable professional hours in ways that make the most impact on the powers-that-be. You have only so much time and energy, so you need to spend it when and where it counts.

Read other articles in the "Working Smart" series:

  1. Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year
  2. Working Smart: Finding Your Niche
  3. Working Smart: Promote Yourself
  4. Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation
  5. Working Smart: Boosting Your Business Acumen
  6. Working Smart: Playing Well With Others
  7. Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network
  8. Working Smart: It's All About a 'Me File'
  9. Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review