DO THEY COUNT AS BILLABLES?

In “New Lawyers, New Classes,” the Wall Street Journal reports on firms sending their attorneys through business-education type programs. Describing one full-time four week example, it states the obvious: “[L]aw firms aren’t billing the 160 training hours to clients.”

But the article is silent on a more interesting question: If a lawyer has to devote 160 hours — or any other amount — to firm-required business education, will that time count toward minimum billable hour expectations?

1958 ABA pamphlet suggested that a reasonable full-time schedule produced 1,300 client hours a year. That’s right, 1,300. Today, senior partners who had no minimum billables requirements as associates run firms where some new attorney orientation sessions dictate monthly targets, as well as annual ones. Big law associates average more than 2,000 billables a year. Adding another 160 hours — a month’s worth of time — for firm-required education is no small matter.

During year-end reviews, associates typically receive spreadsheets detailing their hours by category: client billables, recruiting, training, pro bono, personal, and so forth. (Hat-tip to The American Lawyer‘s A-List, which prompts many firms to count pro bono hours as billable time.)

How about training? Back in January 2008 when law firms were more concerned about attracting and retaining good associates than they are now, the New York Times found firms attacking enormous associate attrition rates with initiatives aimed at keeping the keepers. But even that didn’t always extend to giving billable credit for training.

For example, the Times wrote, “Strasburger & Price, a national firm based in Dallas, announced last October [2007] that it was decreasing the hours new associates were expected to log, to 1,600 from 1,920 annually. (Lest you think those lawyers will be able to go home early, however, note that newcomers will now be asked to spend 550 hours a year in training sessions and shadowing senior lawyers.)”

According to the NALP directory, Strasberger’s policy is unchanged, but at least it’s transparent. Many big law counterparts have remained opaque.

Consider the public positions of the three firms in the WSJ article — Debevoise & Plimpton; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. In their current NALP listings, none discloses its average associate billables for 2009 or 2010. But that doesn’t mean those in charge aren’t watching hours closely.

According to the Journal, “Debevoise said its associate billable hours rose by more than 10% in 2010 and are up by even more so far this year.” To what? The article doesn’t say — and neither does the firm.

Earlier this year, Milbank’s chairman, Mel Immergut, noted that billables were up, but “still low compared to what [they have] historically been.” Again, no hint of what those levels were or are.

Skadden’s culture is no secret. It became the subject of unwanted attention after one of its associates, Lisa Johnstone, died in June at age 32 – reportedly after weeks of extremely long hours.

All three firms state on their NALP forms that they have no minimum billable hours requirement. Debevoise’s website says that billable and pro bono hours “are monitored by partners to assure an associate’s full involvement in our practice and to attempt to spread workloads fairly.”

So perhaps there’s no need to worry about how those 160 business-education training hours get counted after all. Debevoise cares only about assuring full involvement and fairness for its associates, not whether they meet a minimum number of billables. Like many firms, Milbank actually uses its training programs as a sales tool: “Get paid to go to Harvard,” its website proudly proclaims. Skadden will always be Skadden.

But give credit where it’s deserved: Debevoise ranked an impressive 16th in overall mid-level associate satisfaction this year. Milbank and Skadden fared less well — placing 68th and 69th, respectively, out of 126. (The unfortunate backstory is that overall satisfaction for the survey group dropped to another record low.)

Interestingly, all three responded to this query on the NALP form:

“Billable hours credit for training time.”

Debevoise and Milbank answered “Y.” Skadden said “N.”

“Credit” toward what? Unless billables matter to evaluating or compensating associates, wouldn’t firms without a minimum requirement answer “N/A”?

Maybe their stated answers are typos.

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

When challenged to tell a story in as few words as possible, Ernest Hemingway replied with six: “For sale: Baby shoes — never worn.”

I’m not Hemingway, but in his spirit of brevity, I offer five phrases — totaling eight words — distilling a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Law Firms Hold Line In Setting Bonuses,” by Vanessa O’Connell and Nathan Koppel. It appeared on the Monday after Christmas, so you might have missed it.

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HOURS UP: “Average hours billed by associates at the nation’s top 50 law firms by revenue rose by 7% in 2010.”
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BONUSES FLAT: “At New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP, where bonuses were only slightly above last year’s payouts, hours billed by associates were up about 6%.” [According to Above the Law, the firm’s 2010 bonuses ranged from $7,500 for first-year associates to $35,000 for those in the class of 2003. That’s a big drop from 2006, when first-year associates received “special year-end bonuses” of $30,000. Student-loan repayment requirements have not experienced a similar decline.]
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MANAGERS RATIONALIZE: “‘The actual number of [billed] hours is still low compared to what it has historically been,’ [says Milbank's Chairman Mel M. Immergut].”
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PARTNERS WIN: “Revenue at Milbank Tweed will be up by about 3% on flat expenses, Mr. Immergut says, adding that profit per partner will be up by 8% to 10%, depending on year-end collections.” According to The American Lawyer, Milbank Tweed’s average profits per partner in 2009 were $2.230 million. How much is enough? The answer appears to be “More.”