I tell the truth in these columns – at least, to the degree I find convenient or advisable. There is such a thing as a surfeit of veracity. My clients are lawyers, so god help me if I record something a little too candid with regard to their doings. Just talking about myself raises issues.
I haven’t worked at Sullivan & Cromwell since 1999. A statute of limitations must cover misdeeds perpetrated in that dim, dusky epoch. But I’m not betting the farm on it.
I will, therefore, tread with caution as I recount events that occurred in the life of a close friend who practiced at Sullivan & Cromwell during that time, someone whose tenure at this august institution coincided precisely with my own. A dear, personal friend.
It is possible this person occasionally misrepresented his billable hours.
I know. You’re sickened. Awash with a visceral revulsion.
Could I be saying what you think I’m saying!? Not that. It’s unthinkable.
I shall not shy away from the painful truth. I’ll say it: my close personal friend cheated on his hours. At least I think he did. I only think, because he was so sloppy in keeping track of his hours it wasn’t clear what they actually were.
For example, never, so far as I recall, during my entire legal career – all 2 or 3 years of it – did my close personal friend ever bill a “point 25”. I don’t think he knew what a “point 25” was. He just billed an hour, or maybe on a rare occasion, a half hour. Generally speaking, he was assigned to one, maybe two active deals at a time, so he billed the entire day, from the moment he walked in the door to the moment he left, to the client and matter number for whatever deal on which he was working – or occasionally not-working. Then he added an hour or two to “round it up.” He perpetrated these outrages at least a week following the events themselves, and was mostly operating from hazy recollections.
My close personal friend can’t go all Adolph Eichmann on this one, either. He wasn’t “just following orders.” He did, however, have a strong suspicion he wasn’t alone – that there were other malfeasors of his stripe roaming the halls. Call it a hunch – but it’s one I can confirm from the experiences of another close, personal friend – a psychotherapist – who has spent years listening to lawyers spill their guts concerning such nefarious doings (Note: I would never imply that one of my own clients would commit or contemplate such a deed.)
Permit me to take the gloves off. Here’s the bottom line on cheating on your billables: Get used to it. If you don’t cheat on your hours, you will never make partner at a big law firm. This is a hard and fast rule.
Law firms don’t broadcast it to the masses, but the truth is they like it when you pad your hours, and it doesn’t require an advanced degree in economics to figure out why. Biglaw is about billable hours. If you take longer to do something, they earn more money.
Look at it this way – when a biglaw partner prepares a bill, he can always shave down your hours. But he can’t really crank them up, can he? That would be cheating. It would be far more…convenient…if you (nudge nudge wink wink) generated a plump pile of billable hours to start with, right?
You may have noticed firms habitually encourage clients to pursue lengthy, drawn-out, costly litigations instead of settling for the obvious compromise they’re going to end up accepting eventually anyway. Same idea. It’s a form of “churning” – you pump up the time something takes…and make more money. That’s why law firms simply adore going to trial. There’s a delicious little temporal slice – a few weeks, no more – when you can basically bill the client for anything and they’ll pay it. That’s because they have to. It would be…awkward…to say no.
Do you still harbor doubts that firms love billables – any billables? Don’t be naïve. One of my close-personal-friend-the-psychotherapist’s clients recounted a meeting in a conference room where a partner congratulated the associate with the highest billables for the previous month – an absurd 350 hours. The other associates on the case exchanged looks. They all knew the guy – they were in the room with him most of the month, doing precisely what he was doing, as he was doing it. They saw him arrive. The saw him depart. They watched him work. They’d all worked the same number of hours – and it wasn’t no 350. His extra 30 or 40 were what we might politely refer to as “a flight of phantasy” or “poetic license.” He got away with it, too. It took balls, and the other associates respected those balls. In their own weird, pusillanimous, scaredy-cat way, they admired him.
The hours these glorified peons toiled already smacked of absurdity as well as insalubrity. No one can put in twelve hours of quality anything every single day for a month. So what, if this guy tacked on a couple more fictitious hours each evening? What’s the harm of heaping a little extra absurdity upon existing absurdity? If they possessed the cojones, they would have done it too – they acknowledged as much by letting him get away with it.
In the end, it paid off. He was blushing, she recalled, but nonetheless, he rose to take a little bow. Then they moved on and that was that.
Why do law firms want you to crank up billable hours, even if you’re confabulating?
Because, in the end, no one at the firm gives a hot damn how long it took you to do something. They want to charge the client as much as possible and make a lot of money.
How about the client?
Surprise! He doesn’t give a rodent’s posterior how many hours anyone at the law firm took to do anything. He just wants to win.
My close personal friend vividly recalls his participation in a private conclave in a corner office at S&C, watching one partner pow-wow with another over a bill to a client.
“There’s no way I can charge these guys more than $400k for this deal. Tell people to pull back on the hours, cut it down.”
Then he took a pen, crossed off the hours, and made up the necessary numbers to get to $400k, which was what the client was willing to pay.
A client wants something done – a deal closed, a case won. He doesn’t care how many hours you bill. He cares whether you did it, whether it worked – and how much you’re charging. If he thinks it’s worth it – he’ll pay. Otherwise, he won’t.
At this juncture in legal history, clients are mostly balking at paying for junior associates. They consider them clueless, expensive and someone else’s problem. A senior partner told me a client flipped out because a junior accompanied him to a deposition.
“Train him on your own dime,” were the client’s exact words.
He had a point. Why should law firms train juniors at their client’s expense? It’s not their fault law schools don’t teach anything useful. The firms aren’t to blame either. In any case, they’re avoiding the problem by hiring seniors and mid-levels willing to sacrifice seniority for a junior’s paycheck.
Okay – so why do you have to cheat on your hours to make partner?
If you’re making partner it’s because you’re good at three things. One, law. Two, schmoozing. Three, surviving the hell of a big law firm.
The first thing – being good at law – means you work quickly and get stuff done without making a production out of it. That means you have low billables, which would keep you from becoming partner. You could do more work than anyone else – and work all the time, but that would interfere with your second key skill…
Two – being a major schmoozer – means you need to be out doing non-billable stuff like marketing your ass off and taking people out to lunch and going to conferences…which means you have low billables, which would keep you from becoming partner.
Three – surviving the hell of a big law firm – means you have to sleep and maintain at least a semblance of a life so you don’t burn out and lose your mind. That means you have low billable hours etc., etc.
So you fudge. You lie. You make it up.
An associate client at a big mid-town firm had an uncomfortable phone call with a partner from his firm. The partner my client works for directly had billed an insane number of hours to the other partner’s deal, and the other partner was afraid to bill the client for them. He called the associate.
“Is it possible these numbers are correct? Could Joe have billed that many hours?”
My client did what he had to – he played dumb. “I don’t know – he might have been working off-site,” he offered brightly.
There was an awkward silence while it sank in. Joe wasn’t backing down. It took nerve to triple his actual hours and bill them to another partner’s client – but what was the other partner going to do about it? Call him a liar? He had limited alternatives. He could try to ram it down the client’s throat, or he could wuss out and lower the bill. Those were the two choices.
Meanwhile, Joe the lying, cheating, pants-on-fire liar is a big-shot partner with stratospheric billables. This makes for satisfying partner meetings and fat distribution checks.
That’s how it works.
Remember – lie all you want on your billables, but don’t brag about it. Not because you’ll get caught. That’s not the risk. It’s more like you don’t want everyone else to start thinking it’s okay for them to lie on their billables. Then your billables aren’t going to look as good. Get it? Lucky for you, most lawyers are uptight nerds too terrified to remove that label from their mattress (the one it’s illegal to remove.) And yes, some of them break a sweat calculating each and every “point 25” expended to make a photocopy.
Let’s keep your creative time-accounting our little secret.
It’s interesting to note that, during my entire time at S&C, I was hounded by criticism for every move I made, but no one, not one person, ever chewed my close personal friend out for the fact that his time sheets belonged on the fiction – not the non-fiction – best-seller list.
If you’re going to make it at a law firm, you’re going to have to stay out of their way, and make them money.
Go ahead – tell that little white lie. Believe me, no one will blink. If they do, it’ll be more of a wink, followed by a knowing smile.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I can also heartily recommend my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”.
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)