How much time does it really take an attorney to do one billable hour of work?
Family Law Attorney
Should be about sixty minutes. :-)
However, with pressures to bill hours, especially with associates in big law firms, sometimes there has been a natural human tendency to inflate the amount of time it takes to do something and not account for interruptions, multitasking and so forth. Any attorney will tell you it's one of the most hated parts of being a lawyer, as human beings, we aren't accustomed to writing down everything we do accurately in tenths of an hour.
Like many things, computers have made this a lot easier with practice management programs and timekeeping programs like Harvest, which I use and love, and which keeps very accurate records if you get the hang of consistently starting a task timer when you begin a certain work task for a client (see link below for an example of this kind of program) and also works on smartphones and is "cloud based".
Incidentally, because both clients and lawyers hate the billable hour = value = effort concept, billing is getting away from billable hours, with fixed fees or fees based on rough outcomes, goals and tasks and negotiated from time to time with clients. Most of my fees are done that way, and I keep billable hour records more for my own analysis of what is profitable and "covering my butt" so to speak if it is ever claimed my fees were unreasonable or "what did you do for me that should cost me" $X.
Hope this helps. Reading between the lines, the discussion you should have with your attorneys should more relate to expectations, overall project costs, outcomes and what competitor firms are charging as to whether you are satisfied with the effort and the fees charged. The firm may be willing to adjust the bills if you are legitimately unhappy to keep you as a client.
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Similar question may be asked of auto shop mechanics.
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Car / Auto Accident Lawyer
GREAT QUESTION. When I started my legal career as an associate, I once had a partner hand me a file and say, "Bill the hell out of this file. If you are taking a shower and thinking about the case, bill it."
And another problem with hourly fees is that it rewards ignorance. Say, you hire a probate attorney A by the hour and there is a probate issue Attorney A is ignorant of. So Attorney A researches the issue for 5 hours and bills it. But, if you had gone to Attorney B, Attorney B would not have billed because he knows that issue like the back of his hand. Or, Attorney B, could give the file to some green behind the ears associate attorney who won't want to show his ignorance by asking so the associate will spend five hours researching the issue. Or, Attorney B could have just spent five billable hours researching that very same issue and charged it to a previous client and now Attorney B doesn't want to "penalize himself" for his knowledge so he also bills five hours to the new client.
Of course, many attorney are totally honest in their billing and an hour billed is an hour worked on work that needed to be done. But even honest attorneys often round up and say so in their retainer agreements. For example, if the billing unit is one quarter of an hour, a 16 minute phone call is half an hour billed.
I have personally hate the hourly billing model. My firm does personal injury cases in Nevada, California and Arizona--contingency fees and no hourly billing. We also do uncontested probates throughout Nevada for flat or percentage rates (which incidentally are discounted from the allowed statutory attorneys' fees allowed.) However, occasionally, we do have to charge by hour, for example, a supposedly uncontested probate turns into a contested matter.