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Going Like Elsie?

When you start by admitting, from cradle to grave, it isn’t that long a stay, there’s a pretty good chance that your job search will end outside a big law firm.

Many interesting conversations throughout this past spring and summer have confirmed the wisdom of moving in that direction. Well, for me to move int hat direction. Actually, some of those conversations have questioned the wisdom of having waited so long. (You know who you are.) I particularly like the idea, expressed over one (delicious) lunch, that current law students should understand better that when they go work for a big law firm, they are not selling crack legal services to anyone. The firm that employs them might bill itself out as providing legal services, but what the associates are selling is their time, just like almost everyone else. They are selling the time that they have on this planet, and they are selling a great deal of their time on this planet, to the partners, for a high price, to be sure, who will then turn around and sell that time to clients for an even higher price. (Billing rates these days are beyond ridiculous, but the market is the market.) Voilla, profit! Simple. Indeed, it would seem the system, with all its perverse incentives, communicates this basic premise pretty loudly and clearly, since it makes people enter their time in six-minute increments for billing to a client, but, so my lunch mate lamented, too few law students and young lawyers actually “get” it. A lot of people in the world sell their time by the hour and get paid a lot less.

So, as the summer of 2014 ends, I say, hopefully with finality, “goodbye” to the billable hour. I understand why you exist, but I won’t miss you one bit. Even less will I miss the automatically-generated messages from the firm notifying me that I failed to enter a day or two (or ten) of time, messages like little electronic shocks, just large enough to wake you up and reaffirm for you your FBU (fungible billing unit) status. Firms try, to various degrees, to downplay time billed, and I’m not sure why they bother. Maybe there’s something satisfying about clinging to the apprenticeship model, where a budding young lawyer would learn the profession from an experienced old guy (it would have been a guy back then) who “cared” about the apprentice in some personal way and then passed the practice on to him (even the apprentice would have been a guy). They do try to trumpet quality over quantity, etc. But it’s a bit of a lie.

On one business trip, I sat next to a woman from another large Silicon Valley law firm. She managed their litigation group. Her laptop open right next to me, it was impossible not to notice (to be honest, I didn’t try not to notice) that she was calculating suggested annual bonuses from a list of associates sorted by the number of billable hours, from most billed to least. The process was entirely mathematical. Great. Those who logged the most hours should be paid the most, although anyone who’s worked in a law firm for a few years understands the problems with adhering too closely to that principle. Similar rankings existed at one of the firms that I worked for. I saw lists (that weren’t meant for my eyes either) ranking partners and associates by their rolling 12-month billable totals with highlighting, comments, and questions that rarely touched on anything but quantity: “why so low?”, “unacceptable”, and “????”. And, it was absolutely clear, when you saw these numbers and knew the ins and outs of the practice group, that a large number of billers weren’t being, could not possibly have been, truthful in recording their time. I am not sure what better way to gauge the activity of a group of lawyers billing in a large firm would be or whether there is a way to keep people from the perverse incentives that lead them toward inflation. You have to balance the load somehow. You have to be able to “run the numbers” and make the business work. It is what it is: selling time. A lot of people do it. Some people just don’t realize that they are doing it, thinking that they are doing something else, as they sit there late into the night and well into the weekend. The pay, at big law firms, is good.

Were the years in Big Law worth it? That’s a complicated question, the answer to which really just turns on how one chooses to view things. First, I gained a ton of material for an update of Joseph Heller’s classic, set in a big firm in the modern legal world, working title being “Catch 22 U.S.C. 333.” But, more seriously, the high price that a law firm was willing to pay associates, was forced by the market to pay associates, during my time as a big firm lawyer helped Darin and me to become parents. Surrogacy costs a lot of money. Sure, we might have had the money from some other source, if not from my law firm salary. Maybe. Probably? Who knows. But, the fact is, we had it, in part because I worked (hard, back in those days) at a big law firm, and we used it to pave a road for ourselves that led to Fisher Bug and Cory Bee. How could that not be worth it? Thank you very much, Vielen Dank, and merci beaucoup! There are very few things that it makes sense to regret anyway.

And as for me? And as for me. I made my mind up back at Heller/Covy/Wilmer, when I go, I’m going like…Elsie? Hell no, I’m not going like Elsie. She may have been the happiest corpse ever seen, laid out there like a queen, but that’s what came from too much pills and liquor, and, as a matter of fact, from renting by the hour. And, I’m no longer renting by the hour.

Okay, all right, maybe that’s just what I’m telling myself now. But, so, yah, I’m no longer renting by the six-minute increment…

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