I so vividly remember sitting at my desk at a prestigious Boston law firm as a freshly-minted lawyer calculating out time in tenths-of-an-hour (e.g., six-minute increments).
Along with a half-dozen other newbies, I had been instructed on how to bill my legal services within the first hour of the first day that I was at the firm—it all began the day after Labor Day, 1983. The office administrator, an early sixties-something man name Phil whom I would come to love for his calm demeanor in the face of impossibly egotistical humans, pointedly reminded me and the other fresh faces that the firm operated by making money. Hence, apart from not committing legal malpractice, billing one’s time was what mattered most.
“You write down everything,” Phil instructed. “I don’t care if you’re thinking about a case in the restroom or while your home in the shower; all of that’s billable time.”
From then on, I began every morning with a virgin timesheet. Understanding that my future at the firm was intimately tethered to my productivity, I diligently recorded every activity with the goal of totaling at least eight billable hours for that day. The pressure to produce was constant—billable hours became a competitive measuring stick, as in, “How many hours do you have in for the month?”
Back then, it wasn’t at all uncommon for law firms to require 1800 to 1900 billable hours a year, as a base. If you wanted to really shine, you’d need to be in the low 2000s. For the highest of flyers, 2500 annual billable hours was the benchmark.
Some might wonder why this would be a problem given that most people working a forty-hour workweek (and assuming two weeks of vacation) ply away at their jobs 2000 hour a year. The difference is that billable time isn’t normal time. No one works constantly for eight hours a day; we’ve got Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to check, appointments to make, Googling that recipe someone told you about, and so on.
To bill eight hours of legal time it might take ten, twelve or even more hours in a single day.
Naïve as hell, but definitely always eager to make the money, I had no clue about this going into the legal profession. Before long, I inadvertently grew a big fat time clock on the back of my head; the pressure to bill time was ever-present and it never fully went away even when I legitimately didn’t need to produce, like on Sundays or when I took vacations. I was always aware of the time I had billed to date, with it being a barometer as to my peace of mind.
I’m down fifty hours from where I should be for the year. How the hell am I going to make that up?
It only got worse in 1996 when I founded my own law firm in Cedar Rapids. Now I had to bill time not only for me, but also for others—I had to generate revenue—ah, more billable hours—to pay support colleagues and to pay the law firm’s bills. Every day for nearly fourteen years I noted how many hours I had billed and the amount of revenue it produced on a calendar, always mindful of the need to get dollars in the door.
The pressure became nearly unbearable and that time clock on the back of my head transformed more and more into a Frankenstein-like monster. It was ever-present nearly every hour I was awake, regardless of setting or occasion.
But now I was also a capitalist, which meant that I demanded of others they bill time, that they grow time clocks on the backs of their heads too. They quickly became aware of the legal profession’s special currency and not all were as compliant — or foolish — as me.
“I’m sorry that the fit here at the firm doesn’t work. I wish you the best in your legal career.”
Soon I was billing 2800 hours a year. While this meant that I made a lot of money, it also meant that I missed a lot of things—like taking my daughters to the park as much as they desired, or laying in bed with my then-wife giggling, touching, and talking, or the myriad of other wonderful things that happen in life when someone isn’t consumed with watching a clock.
Transitioning genders in 2009 put an end to my law firm. A happy casualty of that was that I no longer needed to bill time—without clients, who needed timesheets? Soon I headed a Minneapolis legal access nonprofit where I had a salary, which meant guaranteed pay regardless of the number of hours that I worked.
The time clock at the back of my head quickly evaporated and finally, after nearly three decades, I could breathe again. There was no guilt if I took off an entire day to write, or to ride my bike, or to even nap.
I look back on my three-decades-long stint of billing time in six-minute increment with horror—how senseless, how traumatic. Yes, I know it served me well and allowed for the accumulation of some limited financial resources, along with paying for my daughters’ college educations.
Still, on the other hand—wow! How much did I miss because of that timeclock that wouldn’t ever leave me alone?
I fear the answer is this: You missed so much, Ellie. Too damn much. And it’s time you will never, ever get back.