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How much time does it really take an attorney to do one billable hour of work?

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How much time does it really take an attorney to do one billable hour of work?

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Posted

Depends on what the work is

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Posted

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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3 comments

Andrew Lawrence Weitz

Andrew Lawrence Weitz

Posted

unreasonable fees? you? I've seen your fee schedule. they are unreasonably low. I know Glens Falls is not New York City, but a fair rate is a fair rate.

Jack Richard Lebowitz

Jack Richard Lebowitz

Posted

I'm still figuring out my marketing strategy. I tend to bill below the posted hourly rates locally, but that's also because I tend to use fixed fees and do "modest means" representation...as something of a "second career" after doing high end corporate/environmental work before the 2008 crash/recession when that kind of work evaporated, at least upstate, probably forever. I don't undercut the competition much on commodity work (house closings, minor criminal matters, family court relatively non-protracted matters), but I do try to give better service and keep my practice small enough to do the handholding and responsiveness that's required. I do hope to raise my rates for the clients who can pay over time, to make the operation a little more profitable. But, yes, a lot of my market right now is folks who are "sticker shocked" when an attorney wants a $5,000 retainer up front to do, say a moderately contested divorce, and I'm willing to start for much less and work with the client on terms (e.g,, payment of $100/month on automatic withdrawal from a bank account). As I said, though, I do keep very accurate time records which tell me which clients are way "over budget" and which are under on a time basis so I can fine tune rates. As I'm taking a "sliding scale" approach to rates, I do expect there to be some cross-subsidization going on. But upstate/downstate aside, I think as we become a more impoverished country because of economic trends, the consumer market I serve is people deciding whether to take a DIY/pro se approach or hire a reasonably priced attorney. It's also nice in that, unlike my previous corporate/law firm career, I'm as busy as I want to be and turn away (potentially difficult) clients, rather than wasting inordinate amounts of time on "business development"/networking sales pitches to business and municipal clients, only one out of ten perhaps ever becomes a paying client. Thanks for the comment.

Jack Richard Lebowitz

Jack Richard Lebowitz

Posted

p.p.s One more observation, re "covering my butt". It goes beyond rates and the bottom line of the bill to the concern I have in a lot of cases, for instance, garden variety child custody/support or criminal cases, where the outcomes are relatively constrained and the client is often going to be disappointed with the result when he gets a typical result. I think such clients may have unrealistic expectations about what an attorney can do for them. Yes, they can improve the outcomes somewhat from a "worst case" scenario where the pro se client has a boneheaded strategy or is overpowered by the other side which is represented, but such cases still produce only moderately acceptable results...the client does not skate away from his legal problems simply because he's represented. In such cases, I want to be able to answer the question "well, what did you do for me, I had a bad plea bargain/shared rather than sole custody/more than I can afford to pay support" with a print out that showed in fact that I did spend a considerable amount of time devoted to his matter, and often more than he thought (especially when priced out at x hundred dollars per hour, even something as modest as $100/hr).

Posted

Similar question may be asked of auto shop mechanics.

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Posted

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.

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