Monday, February 21, 2011

Browbeating the Billable Hour

It's about 7PM right now, and i've billed about 7.45 hours so far and counting (waiting for a document). I got in at around 10 something, and I went to the gym during "lunch", ate lunch at my desk, had a "coffee" break (i actually drank juice) in the middle of the day...all in all, not a bad count for a pretty slow day.  My goal for the day, each day and every day, is to not be in the office any minute longer than i've actually billed.  In other words, efficiency is king. If you can bill 8 hours in a day, and be at or around the office for just over 8 hours total, that's a win. Of course there are all sorts of caveats and provisos when one is talking about corporate lawyers, and what your actual goal may be, but as a baseline, i think this is a good start, and more importantly, it has become critical in how i get away with surviving pretty well here.

One of the most common things i heard when i was in law school talking to practicing lawyers (and to some extent when i was real green) was that line about "i bill about 2300 hours a year, which means i actually work 3000 + hours..." Are you crazy?? That's 700 + hours you have given up for free and that you will not get back.  And if you are actually are going to be in the office or at work for those 700 + hours, at least do something marginally billable so you can credit for them.  If you are on an incentive pay scale, you'll get more cash; if you are lock-step like me, you'll just get more respect and less work. I billed something like 2600 hours in the last 12 month period, but probably only worked like 2650...or maybe less...hoho! uh...just kidding... As a side note, i'd also mention that in vault surveys, they even ask the two questions: "how many hours do you bill on average per month?" and "how many hours do you spend in the office on average per month?" - absolutely ridiculous that something like the vault should even give credence to the whole principle.

Anyway, of course, there are some types of people that may actually prefer to be in the office longer than they need to.  Married men.  Married men with children.  But even then, the reason they need to hide away is because they get so little time for themselves generally, that they need to play work to get out of the house.  Example: dude typically works 14 hours, sleeps 7 hours, and has 3 hours of "free time" - which is obligated to be with his wife and kids because of all the time he spends in the office. So there's no "self" time. So that's why there are guys that do 18 hours "work" (which let's say is 14 hours work + 4 hours "self" time) and 6 hours sleep. Done. I knew a guy who once spent a whole week in the office, sleeping like four hours each night at his desk for this very reason.  But, partners, who may need to be in the office for only 7 hours a day, then have gobs of time to both spend with family and by themselves if they want. They are also brimming with machismo and self-importance so prolly can get away with whateva the fuck they want. So the goal is to get to that - the 7 hours not the machismo thing - whether you're married or not.

So how do you become more efficient and capture those lost hours?  I won't go into everything now, but there are some basic things i do to make sure my billables stay pretty high - not necessarily in absolute terms but relative to other people's "value ratios" i think they'd be astronomical. And by "value ratio" i mean the amount of value i'm capturing for each hour worked vs. each hour billed. If i bill 2600 hours in a year, and actually work 2650, and get paid (for the sake of this example) $200k/yr, then my "apparent" earning power is about $77/hr, but my actual earning power is $75/hr, for a ratio of about 75/77 = 97% - i'm capturing 97% of the value of my time, i.e., i'm only wasting 3% of my time. But, if you are doing things inefficiently, and take 3000 hours to bill 2600, your actual earning power is about $67/hr, for a ratio of 87%.  Why would you discount yourself?  I knew one guy once that was putting in his time after an all-nighter and ended up with 25.6 hours haha. now that's some good value capturing.  Anyway, here are some of the things i do to "capture value" in my time.

1. Learn to Use and Use Timers: timers keep you honest cuz they run when you don't. if you don't use a timer, and especially if you put in your time every few days, every few weeks or worse, you won't remember what the hell you did, and will just ball-park it. you may overestimate some days, you may be spot on on others, but the general natural tendency is to underestimate, perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of indifference, but for whatever the reason, you're losing time. If you use timers, though, you (a) have your time in every day even if you don't have a narrative (which you can always guesstimate later) and (b) you don't have to waste half a day every month selling yourself short. All the most efficient lawyers I know, those that seem to miraculously keep a generally regular 9-7 type schedule, use timers, and use them correctly.  So how do you use them? Any monkey can figure it out in a few minutes - some automatically add time to your timesheet everytime you stop and start, some let you drag and drop, but they are all cool. How do you use them correctly? Easy. Once you start working for the day, you start one (whatever matter you start with), and then you let them go until you stop for the day. Here's when you can stop a timer: when you go and eat outside for lunch, when you leave in the middle of the day run errands, when you go to the gym, when you are at the dentist or doctor, etc. unless you are actually for some reason writing emails or the phone most of the time you are there.  Undoubtedly, you'll probably check and read your email a few times, this is still real work, don't dock yourself, but you don't need to keep a timer running cuz of that. You'll even it out with all the other things that you should keep your timer running through: going to the bathroom (both 1 and 2 - what do you think most people do when they take a dump), going to get a snack/coffee, eating at your desk, checking your email, checking facebook, watching youtube, etc.  Even though you may be doing some distracting shit that's not really work, you are still probably 80% focused on your tasks at hand.  Like if someone came in and said, "you need to do XXX right now!" you wouldn't say "oh wait I'm watching youtube", but if someone said that to you while you were at the dentist or out eating or whatever, it's a little different.  And, more importantly, the fact that you are leaving your timer running will incentivize you to get your work done.  Once you start using timers, guarantee your efficiency will increase, and your apparent efficiency will sky rocket (i.e., what other see you have done - more on this later).  On top of timers, don't forget to add back time you do things after you've left the office, when you're playing hooky, etc.

2. Make a List, Prioritize It, Cross Shit Off, Feel Super: pretty simple, but do it every day, as soon as, or on your way to work. Work may not come in until you get there and you may not have anything outstanding, but if you don't have work to do, you must have other things in life that you want or need to do (if not, good for you, loser). If you do this, you will have a tangible goal in mind every day, and once it's prioritized, you will actually see what you really do and really do not need to do every day, and then you can get in the habit of not doing things that don't need to get done and finishing the stuff you have to do.  if you have a lot of crap to do, you'll see that and be less inclined to waste time picking your nose or flirting with the water boy. Then cross that shit off and feel super.

3. Email: man i could write all day about how to redo email habits, maybe another time. But in general, i get like tens of hundreds of emails a day. And if i were to let it all just sit and rot in my inbox, i'd be fantastically fucked. i treat my inbox like a mini-list. It has all my email to-dos - the clients i need to respond to, the small shit assignments seniors dish off to me, and the random other stuff that comes in. Here's my system: as soon as email comes in, I do a quick read, if it's long, i'll scan and then leave it in. Then, if it's actual work (i.e., a fairly involved assignment like reviewing/commenting on a doc, research an advice question, drafting something, turning something etc.), i'll add it to my real list, but if it is just something mini (e.g., "can you send that thing to that guy?", "can you draft a bill narrative for me?") just leave it. They all then fit into a priority list - if it's on the real list, it gets done first, then all the mini shit. As they get done, they get sorted into the appropriate folder, so that at the end of the day, i don't need to remember if i've forgotten anything, if it's done, it's out of the inbox, if it's outstanding, it's still sitting there (and if it's not urgent, i'll probably leave it for the next day). i also copy myself on emails i send out that will require a response, so that i can easily remember to 'chase' people later, cuz it'll just be sitting there, festering, every day, until it's done. That's probably about 20% of my email. Then there's all the pseudo-chatter email - emails that have somehow come to substitute for normal human conversation like, "Ok" or "Will do" or "Hey dude, check out this youtube video".  Read then DELETE.  I have a feature where i get a pop-up everytime i get a message. This is good cuz i'm looking at my screen 99% of the time, and when one of those one word shits come up, i delete it on the fly like a whack-a-mole. (You can delete them from the pop-up window.)  This is probably like 50% of my email. Then you have work emails that are not really for you, but are part of a deal you're doing and you may need to reference it or read it later and you should probably keep it anyway. If you are on a lame IPO or cap mkts deal, you'll probably get a billion of these a day. I've dealt with this in one of two ways: assign a category and folder to your group email, set a rule so that it assigns the category to an email right away when it comes in and then either (1) sends a copy of the message or (2) the actual message to the folder. I started with (2) but went to (1) when i realized that this way i can keep the stuff that i need on my email to do list in my inbox and sort it into subfolders later, and then i can just delete the random spam type stuff right away (because a copy will be saved in the parent folder). The last type of email you get is spam. Just get a good spam filter.  OK, now the last general piece of the email puzzle is setting it up so that you can see which emails are sent just to you, and those that are sent to a bunch of people and you are just cc'ed or part of a longer list. You can set this up in your outlook so messages sent to just you appear as a different color, and you know that you'll most likely need to respond to that message. This is like an automatic 'flag' feature, which should supplant your current use of those reminder flags, because they are terrible (they are too easy to use - so you flag everything, and to hard to retrieve and monitor - so you have like 800 flags, like me). In this way, my inbox never has more than like 10-15 items - just enough to fill the top reading pane, and this both gives me a manageable goal every day and keeps me on top of everything. I've seen people with like hundreds or THOUSANDS of emails in their inbox. How the hell do you find anything? Jebus. oh and one other tip - if you've ever found that as soon as you send shit out and get shit done, people will start sending you more stuff to do? well if you have your emails sent much later, and all at once, you can avoid that shitty cycle. anyway, more on all this another day.

4. Delegate Correctly: whether you're delegating to your secretary, a paralegal, a junior associate or anyone else (printer, word processing, headhunter, escrow agent, service provider etc.), the most important thing you need to consider is this: can your delegatee DO the task? This doesn't mean that they won't know how to do it in the first instance - a lot of times you have to teach people, but you need people that you can eventually trust to do the work and do the work correctly, otherwise you are wasting everyone's time. If you have to spend any significant amount of time re-checking this stuff yourself, it defeats the main purpose of your delegation. Paralegals i typically find can be the absolute worst but sometimes the best - i've known so many that always shrug off work by saying they have too much, or just doing a shitty job, or never doing what you ask - avoid these guys and just work with the good ones, telling them how much you like working with them to make them feel good about slaving away for you. Here's a quick list of typically how I delegate:
  • markups (anything that isn't just high-level comments or would take me under 10 min or is urgent) - word processing
  • most personal things - restaurant reservations, golf booking, making phone calls or random stuff...sometimes really random stuff... - secretary
  • circle-ups, checklists, closing memos/lists, sig pages, etc.  - good paralegals
  • never delegate anything to anyone that is not good and you have come to not trust - you will just waste your time (this is good to keep in mind later if you ever need to shirk work from someone above...more on this another day...)
For delegation to junior associates, you can give them pretty much anything they have time for and they usually do a good job.  If you keep giving stuff to people that they know how to do, and do well, they will be more willing to do it, and if you're appreciative, they'll be more willing to do it for you.

Once you've figured out what things you can delegate to who, you need to drastically expand the number of things you can delegate.  Consider this as a mini-outsource power trip.  I delegate so much of my personal and small work stuff that I exclusively deal with things that only I can and should do myself and things that are very private. For example, if i want to book and pay for a tennis court - give me secretary my credit card, time and date and she already knows what to do and does it.  If I'm negotiating a simple document - i'll push drafting responsibility to the other side unless it makes negotiating sense for me to control the document.  If i want to research vacation ideas - have a travel agent do all the work and send you a list of itineraries. The point is, whenever there is something you want/need to do, FIRST think, who ELSE can do this?  As a post-script, i'm on pretty good terms with all delegatees, and this really helps in terms of getting things done and having people feel responsible for their work. 

5. Become Technically Savvy: there are so many times when having some basic technical know-how has saved me a truckload of pain.  Consider this scenario: you just get home from work, and an urgent message comes in and someone wants your written markups on a certain doc.  You need to comment on something that you can't use word to edit, and you don't have a scanner or anything.  You could go back to the office, print out the thing, mark it up and scan it - but this is ridiculous and i've never done this.  In this situation, I like to use acrobat pro's basic commenting tools (your firm and your firm's laptop i presume have this) - you can pull up any pdf - or convert something to pdf - then use it to directly markup a doc using arrows, textboxes, other markup signs. I used this a lot when i was dealing with offering docs and needed printers to turn things and i just had a few pages to send (not a 200-page markup).  Other options: use my camera to take hi-res pics of a markup, directly copy and edit the formatting and style of text in an email to make it look like a blackline, or just use email comments (may not always be an option).  The point is, learn to use the technology at your disposal to make your life easier - just because your senior person from new york is in the habit of printing out every single thing they get and marking it up by hand and then returning it to you, even one-line emails (it's happened...), doesn't mean you need to be retarded too. In the example above, if i were to go back to do that one thing, it could cost me an hour or more of time. By doing it on my computer at home, maybe 15 minutes. But the relief of not having to stress over the whole ordeal and knowing what to do is priceless.

6. Don't Be a Pushover:  probably the most important time-saver is pushing back on stuff that just doesn't make sense.  Ever get that assignment that just makes you think, "are you on fucking crack?"  The fact is, clients, especially less sophisticated and/or corporate clients, many times do not have a clear grasp and what needs to be done in order to accomplish their goals etc., and some senior people will just roll over and fold when they're told to do it. It's your job as the young, bright and eager mid-level/junior to say, "does that make sense?" or "what if we did it this way, [x], so we save [y] amount of time?". it doesn't hurt to ask, and the worst is they say no. otherwise, you are just a monkey processor automoton. Clients or seniors that ask for unrealistic deadlines or work are doing so because they are disconnected from reality. Why do seniors do this? because they are used to and used to listening to clients. And why do clients do it? because they are listening to their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, who undoubtedly have no idea what the nitty gritty is that you are being asked to do, how much that will cost, and how stupid it will be. You can be creative about it too - just think in terms of what matters to the people you are working for. For example, there was a public holiday recently, and the bankers were pressing us to be ready to price the deal the day before the holiday started - when they'd been saying pricing was going to be each previous day that week and the week before too. Realistically, it was not going to happen today, it would happen after the 4-day weekend. So what did we do? We called up the printer and asked about overtime charges for work over the holiday. When we told the banker about the ridiculous premium and advanced scheduling required for the printer (you can always count on your delegatees to want to do less work than you!), they immediately conceded that pricing would be after the holiday most likely. Bam. Anyway, point is, just because you are a corporate lawyer doesn't mean you have to act like you're missing a chromosome.

if you're interested in seeing what kind of billables people succumbed to this past year, check out ATL

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