Today, for the first time, I billed over six hours at work. Some of you might be thinking that I must come in late or leave work early then. Nope, billable hours does not equal number of hours you are at the office. I always kind of knew this, but I did not fully understand it until I entered the private firm world this summer and measured everything to the tenth of an hour. Yes, we actually have a computer program where I say that I work 3.4 hours on x assignment for x client on this day.
During fall recruitment last year, we were always told to look at how many billable hours a firm required. I think around 2,000 was the norm for the big firms and 2,400 was probably the highest. Many people in their head calculated: 2,000 hours a year divided by 50 weeks (assuming you have 2 weeks of vacation) = 40 hours a week. Well, even if I goofed off an hour a day, that still seems like a normal work week.
Then I read this "beware of the big-firm" law review article, which described why the billable hour number is deceiving. When you measure everything to the tenth of an hour, you have to cut out a lot of time to do ordinary things: walk down the hallway to go to the bathroom, fill up your cup of coffee, respond to emails, attend a training session, etc. Moreover, the billable requirement is often just a minimum. So now you know why many lawyers at big firms work 14+ hours a day, six or seven days a week.
I know that many firms are making positive steps to facilitate work/life balance. I know that all lawyers, whether at big firms or small, often work long hours. I know that billing hours will become easier once I gain more experience and have my own projects. But there is still a marked difference between how the billable hour influences the culture at big firms and small firms because of the difference in required hours, how strictly they are enforced, how they are counted, etc. Big firms aren't inherently bad in my mind, they're just not for me. I like the fact that the lawyers at my small firm all have families, go home at a decent hour, and never have to work weekends just to accumulate hours.
Now I know why they say that once you have worked in a small firm, you can never go big.