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First Week at the Firm: How to Maximize Your Billable Hours

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Welcome to "First Week at the Firm," a new FindLaw feature for beginning associates, focused on helping you navigate the transition into firm life. We hope you'll enjoy this new series and come back regularly for more insider tips.

The billable hour is one of the defining characteristics of working at a firm. Like the Socratic method in law school, it's often hated, often criticized and yet remarkably intransigent. If you're starting as a new associate, get ready to start organizing your day, and your life, around the billable hour.

Don't worry, though -- the billable hour isn't always as fearsome as it's made out to be. With some skill and finesse, you can learn to master the system, maximizing your billables so you're not stuck in the office twelve hours a day. Here's some tips:

1. Break Your Time Up By Discrete Tasks

The billable hour is more often the billable six minutes. Many firms have associates break their hours into discrete six minute chunks, billing a tenth of an hour at a time. That means anytime you spend on a matter, no matter how small, can be billed. Answer a single email? You can bill for those six minutes. Take a call? Again, bill for those six or twelve minutes. Accounting for each discrete task is one of the most common ways to maximize billable hours.

Making sure you thoroughly track your time is key to making sure you can account for every minute. Be sure to write all your tasks down as you accomplish them and not just at the end of the day. You will forget, we promise.

A word of caution, however. Beware of impermissibly dividing single tasks into multiple tasks in order to bill for each element. Billing a tenth of an hour for the two minutes it took you to read an email, then a tenth of an hour for the three minutes you spend responding to it can be ethically dubious, at best.

2. Stay Focused

It can be hard enough to reach the sometimes ridiculous amount of hours firms expect. Making your hours will only be harder if you're the kind of person who needs to take a fifteen minute break after every forty-five minutes of work. It can be tempting to go chit chat with colleagues -- please, don't forget the importance of making friends -- but remember that if you end up wasting an hour or two a day on cat videos and personal phone calls, you're going to have to make up your hours by working longer and working later. Try focusing on a few productivity exercises if you're finding it difficult to keep focused.

3. Use Your Support System

Don't be afraid to make use of your legal secretaries and paralegals. It is an efficient use of your time if you let them do the work they've been hired to do, while you focus on ways to best use your skills and expertise. Don't waste your time with photocopying, faxes, or collating documents if there's support staff available to take care of the tasks. Maximizing your hours, after all, doesn't mean just billing for as many tasks as possible, it means making the best use of the time you do bill for.

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