Our firm is a sixteen attorney municipal law firm in Detroit with six partners and ten associates. Like most firms that do municipal work we must deal with lower billing rates than other firms charge. The volume of our work can also fluctuate at times. All of our work is billed by the hour and billable hours is our most important key performance indicator. Our associates have a billable hour expectation of 1800 annual billable hours and only two of our associates are even close to reaching 1800 hours. Some are not even reaching 1200 hours. Some of the associates have the excuse that they don’t have enough work. We do not believe that this is the case. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.
This seems to be a common issue. Failure to attain billable hour goals can be caused by any one or a combination of the following:
- Work ethic and simply not working enough “worked hours”
- Lack of work
- Poor time management habits
- Poor time keeping/recording habits
I would start by observing the number of worked hours they are putting in. Are the putting in the hours? Observe as well as review their time reports – billable and non-billable time. If you don’t track non-billable time start doing so. Then review and discuss with them their time management and time keeping/recording habits. Questions to ask include:
- Are they keeping time contemporaneously?
- Are they dropping time that is not getting into the system?
- Where is their time going?
- Are they being assigned non-billable work by others?
- Are they provided with proper staffing assistance?
Review and discuss workload levels of each associate and determine if lack of work is an issue.
I have found that often the cause of the problem is a combination of some or all four of the above listed causes. Lack of work is often one of the causes. My question is then:
- Have you advised anyone that you need work?
- What are you doing with your non-billable time if you don’t have billable work?
The firm should have an established protocol for assignment of work to associates and to whom the associate advises that he or she needs more work. When billable work is slow and not available the associate should be assigned non-billable firm or business development projects such as developing document templates, writing articles, etc.
If the problem is work ethic appropriate consequences and disciplinary measures may be required.
If the problem is time management and time keeping training and habit building will be required.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
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