As a lawyer, time is your most-valuable asset whether you spend it billing time or completing flat-fee tasks. So it makes sense to free up as much of your time for doing more billing, right?

Well, it depends.

Freeing Up Time

The usual way to “free up” time is to hire someone. At some point, every lawyer starts to feel swamped, which leads them to consider hiring someone to free up time for lawyering so they can bring in more money, which will more than cover the employee’s or independent contractor’s paycheck.

Except it does not usually work out that way. Hiring your first employee or independent contractor actually creates a third new position in your firm: manager. What really happens when you hire an assistant or junior associate is that you spend your freed-up time on management, not billable lawyering. And since you now have an extra paycheck to write, you will also have to do more marketing to bring in more business that will increase your revenue so you can write those paychecks every month.

You may also free up some time for lawyering, but almost certainly not as much as you hoped. Especially if you are new at managing staff, it takes a while to get the hang of it. Expect your profits to drop until you figure out how to manage your staff effectively and efficiently (something many lawyers never do figure out), bring in more business, and do more billable lawyering.

Instead of hiring staff to free up time, most solos are better off staying solo, raising rates, and selecting better clients. Hire someone when you can afford it on your existing revenue, not when your calculations require you to free up time for billing.

Another common way to “free up” time is to adopt a particular technology. While going paperless or adopting practice management software can definitely free up some time, they generally don’t make a huge difference. You should absolutely go paperless and make sure you are on top of your clients and matters, but don’t expect to free up hours a day. An hour a week would be pretty amazing. You will probably realize more revenue from the money saved on office supplies and copying costs than on new billable time.

The Productivity Limit

Theoretically, let’s say you freed up all your time for lawyering. How much of that time could you realistically spend doing billable legal work, on average?

No matter how many hours are technically available for lawyering, few people could actually use all of them. NALP’s most-recent information on billable hours shows the average billable hours hovers around 1,800 per year, or about 7.2 hours per workday, if you work five days a week and take two weeks off. The total hours worked counting non-billable time is about 2,000, or as you might expect, about eight hours per day. So it seems reasonable to peg your theoretical maximum productivity at about seven or eight hours a day. Sure, you may hang around the office for longer, but you probably aren’t getting any actual work done in that time.

If you are already averaging seven hours of billable work in a day, you cannot realistically expect to gain much more time no matter what you do. Before you use more time for billing as an excuse to hire someone or buy something, consider whether you would actually be able to make good use of that time.

Instead, focus on eliminating waste in the practice you have, raise your rates if you can, and focus on your most-profitable clients.

Featured image: “close up of man hand holding hourglass” from Shutterstock.