Billable Hours Got You Down? Start the New Year with a Refresh

Written by Allison Wolf

Alex said with a sigh, “January is like Groundhog Day with billable hours reset to zero, and it all starts over.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this said, nor the third. January comes with this sense of fatigue for many lawyers as the billable hour cycle starts anew.

As a coach, what concerns me most about billable hours is the attention it pulls from more important professional priorities. It is better to think about how you are progressing in your career than obsessing about the hours.

If you are in a legal practice that requires hourly billing, it is crucial to develop a simple billing routine so that your focus can instead be on doing good work, serving clients well, and investing in your professional development.

As coach Janiene Chand says, if billing is a skill you haven’t yet mastered – try a refresh:

“Instead of thinking of the start of a new year as a time to restart, you can think of it as an opportunity to refresh. Take the opportunity to do things differently, including your approach to billable hours. Take a look at the year before and check in with yourself. What worked well with your approach? What didn’t work well? How would you like this year to be different?”

Shift your attention from the annual target to the daily number.

One way to refresh your approach is to give attention to the daily small number and allow your small daily wins to accumulate over the year.

Carina Bittel, Legal Management Consultant, breaks it down this way:

“The challenge is that people focus on the big number – the total annual target, which is a lot of hours to contemplate all at once. There is also a corresponding anxiety of falling behind and having it on your back all year. Sometimes, lawyers will get a slow start to the year and feel like catching up is hopeless. I encourage people to break their billable hour commitment into much smaller pieces and then chip away at that target one piece at a time.”

Here is the way to do this:

  • There are 366 days in 2024 (leap year).
  • Take out weekends and public holidays, and there are 251 working days.
  • Take out 15 vacation days (or however many vacation days you plan to take), and maybe another six full days spent in conferences, professional development, marketing events, etc. That’s 230 working days.
  • Take your target and divide it by 230, and that’s your daily billable hour target.
  • For example, if your target is 1650, divide it by 230; that’s just under 7.2 hours/ day. It’s still a lot of dedicated billable time. Still, it’s manageable, and it factors in work-free holiday time, time for professional development and marketing events, and any time worked on weekends provides surplus hours.

The trick after that is to stay on it from the start of the year. Ideally, even build a bit of a buffer in the first months of the year so that if you hit a lull or an unexpected bump, you have a bit of flex (in addition to the flex you already built into your formula).”

If you have a bad start to the year because there isn’t enough work due to economic or other conditions, then once the work starts to flow, get back into the daily rhythm and bill as you had planned. Don’t stress about falling behind. With the above example, keep your aim on billing 7.2 hours a day. Don’t burn yourself up playing catch-up.

I also encourage you to check in on your money mindset. Your education, your training, and your experience are valuable. Your work helps contribute to your salary and benefits and to everyone at the firm. Clients who pay full fees for their work help make it possible for your firm to offer others lower cost or pro bono services. It is essential that you are paid for the work you put in. Accurately recording your time and billing clients is the way to do this.

The bottom line:

If billable hours are a big concern for you, start this New Year with a refreshed approach. Make recording time into a simple daily habit, focusing on making good use of each workday.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at allison@shiftworks.ca or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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