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ANALYSIS: Do More Years in Practice Mean More Non-Billables?

Sept. 12, 2022, 9:00 AM

Most law firm attorneys—and possibly most law students—are familiar with firms’ billable hour requirements. What is possibly surprising (especially to new firm lawyers) is the amount of time you’ll invest in non-billable matters. And if you’re between the ages of 45 and 64, data from Bloomberg Law’s most recent Workload & Hours Survey suggest that you may spend more time on non-billable work than your younger colleagues.

Law firm survey respondents reported that on average, they accrued over 200 non-billable hours over the last six months. The survey didn’t ask these respondents to identify the types of non-billable work in which they engaged, but in my experience, non-billable hours range from compulsory, mundane tasks (such as tracking time and preparing budgets) to more fulfilling work (such as pro bono projects and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives).

It then makes sense that survey respondents with the highest number of non-billable hours were those lawyers ages 45–64—who may be partners or of-counsel, and who don’t have the same billable hour or bonus thresholds as younger associates.

These respondents reported average totals well above the survey mean of 205 non-billables: 278 hours for respondents ages 45–54, and 240 hours for respondents ages 55–64. In comparison, law firm respondents under the age of 45 reported billing less than 200 hours of non-billable work. Attorneys over 65—who are possibly starting to wind down their practices—also reported less than 200 hours.

This begs the question as to why we’re seeing such a huge jump for attorneys in the 45–64 age range. As law firms work to promote DEI initiatives, it’s possible that these attorneys are stepping up to invest non-billable time in improving diversity. It’s also possible that attorneys in this age range are partners focusing on client development and marketing. But, it’s very likely that these attorneys are the ones that bear the burden of the firm’s non-billable administrative tasks such as project management and billing audits.

If the non-billable hours spent on project management and administration could be reduced or eliminated, participation in DEI initiatives and pro bono work might increase. Or, having fewer non-billable tasks may allow attorneys to generate more billable hours or spend a few hours on self-care each week. Law firms should consider engaging legal operations professionals, legal technology, and legal project managers to find creative solutions to lessening the non-billable burden.

Related content is available for free on our  In Focus: Lawyer Well-Beingpage. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our  Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, andIn Focus: Lawyer Developmentpages.

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