- One firm recently circulated an internal memo stating that the path to partnership would require billing a minimum of 2400 hours per year.
Defying most expectations at the onset of the pandemic, large law firms have been busier and more profitable than ever over the past two years. So busy, in fact, that one firm recently circulated an internal memo stating that the path to partnership would require billing a minimum of 2400 hours per year. 2400.
Let’s unpack that number. I’ll give you 10 vacation days, 5 major holidays, 3 sick days, and 26 weekend days sprinkled in through the year. That leaves 323 days of work each year. To hit 2400 hours, you could bill just under 7.5 hours each of those days. That doesn’t sound so bad—with a half-hour lunch, that’s a nine-to-five workday. Do that a mere 323 days each year, and you can check off the billable hours box.
Of course, as a young lawyer in a large law firm, you’d be advised not to arrive at your desk, grind out a few hours, wolf down a sandwich, bill four more hours, and head for the door to make it in time for your tennis doubles match. The path to partnership will require much more of your time. Even assuming you can bill every second of time you devote to client matters, your firm will expect you to invest in client development, professional training, firm administration, and other non-billable activities. You’ll also need some face time with contemporaries and senior lawyers to build personal bonds and mentorships. Conservatively, you can expect all that to add up to an hour-and-a-half each day, and those non-billable demands increase as you move up through the ranks. The best case, then, is you’ll be putting in nine hours each workday. Realistically, you can’t bill every second of work, and non-billable demands tend to accumulate. And every extra day off for a friend’s wedding or a visit to your parents means you will need to make up those lost hours.
Still, even 10 hours a day sounds doable, leaving some personal time before or after work. But law practice is stressful, and 320 or more days a year can take a toll. This undoubtedly explains why so many younger lawyers demand the flexibility to work remotely a few days each week. We learned in the pandemic that, yes, a large law firm could be very successful even with all its attorneys and staff working remotely every day. Nobody wants that permanently, but many attorneys don’t want to go back to the old days. Remote work allowed a far more flexible way of fitting in those 10 hours.
Most of the guest speakers I have had come through my class at Vanderbilt on the legal industry the last two years—most via Zoom—confirm that the new normal will involve a blend of in-office expectations with flexibility for some remote work. The practices among firms are still varied and changing—we’ve not settled on the new normal. But this focus on how many remote days is enough or too many misses a lesson one of my guest speakers offered. We should not only be thinking about how to shape the remote work policy but also how to change what it means to work in the office to help the work-life balance. The speaker’s firm asked their young attorneys what would make coming into the office more appealing. Based on the feedback, the firm is doing away with dress codes, encouraging frequent breaks, covering gym memberships, setting up casual workspaces, and taking other steps to make working at the office less like working at the office. And, much like we learned that working from home is not inconsistent with a successful practice, her firm is learning the same is true when working at the office is more like working at home.
Whether at home or in the office, 10 hours will still add up to 10 hours. However, if you can put in those hours at either location in jeans on a couch with your laptop, 2400 hours sounds a little less daunting. If 2400 is the new normal, let’s hope more firms find a new normal of working in the office.