Billable-hours requirements mean long days, juggling commitments for young lawyers

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A few Fridays ago, Elizabeth Collura stayed home from work. Her 20-month-old daughter was too sick to be left at day care, and, Ms. Collura, a fifth-year associate at Thorp Reed & Armstrong LLP had to finish a brief and be in court by 2 p.m.

Other professionals might consider blowing off the day, but attorneys often can't afford to forfeit so many billable hours. So at 7:30 a.m., Ms. Collura, 29, sat her weary toddler on one knee in front of the television, wedged her laptop behind the child, switched on "Elmo in Grouchland" and hammered out the rest of a 12-page motion to dismiss a lawsuit.

At noon, her husband, an informational technology executive at Allegheny Valley Bank, came home from work to do the next shift with their daughter; and Ms. Collura made the short trip Downtown from Greenfield -- and had enough time to call a few clients before shuttling off to court. She logged nine hours that day, eight of which counted toward her billable hour requirement.

Minimum yearly billable hour requirements are a standard performance measurement at most large law practices, dating back to the 1950s. While Ms. Collura was on track to make her hours, she had little wiggle room, as Thorp Reed & Armstrong tallies its total billables in a few weeks, at the close of the fiscal year. As many law associates with steady relationships, children or aging parents can attest, meeting a firm's yearly billable requirement means juggling commitments.

A lawyer may need to put in 10 hours in order to log eight genuinely billable hours.

Frequently, Ms. Collura brings work home, and logs a few extra hours after her daughter's bedtime. Some weekends she gets up at 5 a.m. and works until 10 a.m., plays with her daughter and resumes work in the evening. She also spends about eight non-billable hours a month in her role as council member in the Allegheny County Bar Association's Young Lawyer Division.

Ms. Collura says she is at peace with this lifestyle.

Over at Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti LLP, Bradley Matta, 27, a second-year associate, headed into work on a Saturday morning two weeks ago to revise motions due the following Monday. The 2010 Duquesne Law School graduate works most Saturdays and often logs 10- and 11-hour weekdays, squeezing in a workout at the gym in his firm's building and 30-minute lunch with fellow members of Pietragallo's products group.

He admitted that not being tied down makes this lifestyle easier to pull off.

"I don't have a fiancee. This is my A-1 priority and my family is my A priority," said Mr. Matta. "Billing requirements aren't what make a successful attorney. I think it's basically your desire and motivation to serve your client. If you do it the right way, you're going to meet your requirements."

Law firms, of course, are for-profit businesses, and the product they're selling is the billable hour (unless they make alternative fee arrangements). Clients may ask to view a firm's fee schedule, which lays out hourly rates to hire everyone from a first-year associate to a partner.

To meet their bottom line, some firms provide sizable bonuses to employees who meet or exceed their billable hour minimums. Time spent reading correspondence or legal publications, litigating pro bono cases, attending continuing legal education events, networking, even logging six-minute segments of a billable hour, doesn't count as billable, though firms may consider community involvement and professional development in personnel evaluations.

When billable time became the standard in the 1950s, the American Bar Association suggested 1,300 yearly billable hours -- six per weekday, plus a half day Saturdays -- was a reasonable goal for full-time employees.

Few local firms would disclose exact billable requirements for this story. Practitioners estimated that Pittsburgh firms ask staffers to fulfill a minimum of 1,700 to 2,000 billable hours. A 2010 National Association for Legal Career Professionals study tracked the average billable hour requirement at just below 1,800, with an average of 2,000 total hours logged, including non-billable work.

Since the 2008 recession, legal professionals note, it has become somewhat verboten to speak freely about how a billable requirements affect your lifestyle, lest you seem uneager, ungrateful or less-than-hungry. And while Pittsburgh-based firms do not have the same "sweatshop" atmosphere as, say, New York City-based firms, meeting hours can still be difficult, and sometimes that can lead to billing for a less-than-quality effort (or for a less-than-honest effort, for those who might give into the temptation to "pad" hours).

That's why Kenneth Horoho, at Gentile, Horoho & Avalli PC, says he and his fellow partners take a holistic approach to awarding bonuses: "The good managing partners of law firms know that it's not just working these kids in a sweatshop. They want to develop lawyers, see what they bring to the firm, how hard they work, know which of their entry level lawyers are going to be stars.

"Unfortunately, billable hours are part of process."

Mr. Matta's boss, William Pietragallo, said he sees three ways lawyers approach the billable life.

The first group of lawyers is highly motivated to excel professionally and makes the practice -- "in addition to family" -- the primary commitment of their lives. These attorneys never concern themselves with billable hours; they tend to meet or exceed them as a byproduct of their drive to work.

Next, he said, are lawyers who want to be successful and efficient, seeking balance between their careers and their families.

"They are [always] living in a world with competing interests -- if they're going to go to the Little League game, go home to make dinner, put the child to bed, or complete the brief, redraft the transaction. Those competing interests are present for those people because they're trying to dual prioritize. It's that balancing and juggling they have to do," he said.

"Those lawyers absolutely concern themselves with billable hours because they know it's one of the measuring sticks for their financial success and their elevation to partner."

Lawyers in the third category may meet their billable hour requirements somewhat begrudgingly, he said, because this is a job, and they want to get paid.

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Gabrielle Banks: First Published June 25, 2012 4:00 AM


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