Working on the billable hour model is a lesson in the law of diminishing returns. At least that’s the takeaway from Yale Law School’s Career Development Office. According to Yale’s numbers, to bill 1800 hours per year you would have to “work” over 2400 hours, which includes your commute, taking lunch, and 1.5 hours for coffee breaks, meetings, and what Yale terms “reading legal updates and reviewing general correspondence.”1 Assuming you take five weeks of vacation per year (three personal and two holidays) and don’t work Saturdays, you would have to be “at work” about twelve hours per day. To achieve 2200 hours you would need be “at work” over 3000 per year.

This means to legitimately bill 1800 hours, you are going to burn 600 hours in non-billable time. To get to 2200, you are going eat over 800 hours which, hour for hour, equals over a month per year.

But there is a big problem with Yale’s scenario: it assumes that all the time associates spend doing legal work will be billable, and that all time billed will be realized time. Essentially, this means that there will be no cutting down on the associate’s billed time by either the supervising partner or the client. But in the real world, the supervising partner decides what portions of the associate’s billing gets put on the client’s bill, and what gets cut as either a favor to the client or because the associate either billed too much for the task, or billed for something for which the client will refuse to pay. Clients also get an opportunity to cut down bills, and either do it themselves or through third-party companies that get a cut of the money they save the client by cutting bills down. This means the total time an associate spends working to achieve their hourly mark is even higher than Yale’s estimates.

Let’s not forget about Yale making the assumption that associates at billable hour firms get to actually take five weeks of vacation. If you are one of these individuals please respond in the comments with your full contact information, so that we may study you. For science.

Featured image: “Businesswoman with clock being late for her deliverables” from Shutterstock.

  1. We all know this means looking at cat videos, Yale. 

Sam Harden
Sam is a lawyer who decided to teach himself to code, because I'm a believer that technology can help bridge the access-to-justice gap. Sam works as a Project Manager for the Florida Justice Technology Center and Measures for Justice.


  1. Avatar andrewshumate says:

    A part of the problem is the fact that fields of law vary widely in what is considered billable and what is not. With my criminal cases, the vast majority of the time I spend in the office is billable – roughly 90%. With my family court cases, that drops to about 80%. I could imagine that in more transactional fields, that number would drop even more. There’s no real logic to that, though. I personally think that a flat fee per matter is the most fair way to handle cases for clients – unfortunately, my state’s ethics committee has decided that flat fees are unethical, according to a seminar put on by the ethics board.

  2. Avatar Malby says:

    Litigation or big deals, you get to bill at least until the case or deal is done. The real issue is giving legal advice to a bunch of clients in the same day.

    The real problem is the unknowns. How do you estimate the cost of litigation? Or legal advice? Deals maybe easier.

  3. Avatar Mary says:

    This is a reminder of why I’m so glad I started my own firm. Complete autonomy over my work and billing. I do transactional work for business clients and have been able to start setting flat fees for certain types of projects because I know the average amount of time that goes into it. And clients appreciate the certainty.

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