Jessica Hagy always makes me laugh, but this one made me sigh because it’s the basis and failing of all legal billing:


Back Again


I had a not-rotten couple of weeks — my new meds are working — but I’m back in a funk. I’m having terrible eye-strain headaches from 12-hour days at the computer. Stress kept me from sleeping for three straight days, which actually made me bill GREAT hours because I was way too tired to think at a normal sort of speed.

That day, coincidentally, the Journal of the ABA had a story about how associates want to lower billables in exchange for a pay cut and partners don’t want associates to lower billables. One of the rationales given was that partners can’t tell who’s a really good lawyer without the metric of hours. So backwards. First of all, your law firm is TOO LARGE if you can’t tell by reading their work who’s good and who sucks. And secondly, when I’m doing good work, I work quickly and don’t bill very many hours. When I’m exhausted and doing shitty work, I bill TONS of hours because it takes me forever.

I’m sure clients are delighted to be paying ridiculous amounts of money for me to stare blankly at a screen and type a word every few minutes because I haven’t slept in days on end. I know that’s EXACTLY the high quality work they want with the kind of billing inflation they need.

This past month I’ve been having panic attacks like it’s going out of style. It’s been five years since I last had them, and suddenly I’ve had like six this month alone.

My doctor is tweaking my meds, which is doubtless part of the problem. Things that have panicked me so far this month include sudden movement, spousal bickering, an overwhelming to-do list, having to drive my car, the department store, and something else I can’t remember. Spousal bickering is the one that bothers me the most, because if you’re married to someone, have a bout of bickering over whose turn it is to do the dishes, and your spouse not only bursts into tears but goes into a full-on panic attack, how are you going to feel about that? Chances are, depending on your relationship, either manipulated, or rotten and guilty for setting a panic attack off, or frustrated and like you can never talk again for fear of setting one off. My husband feels guilty. It’s not his fault, and I feel guilty that I made him feel guilty. Ah, the circle of love.

Panic attacks are horrible. People describe them as feeling like you’re dying, or having a heart attack. Mine definitely fall in the heart-attack category. I start gasping for air, usually crying and/or sobbing, and then I start shaking uncontrollably and usually break out in a sweat. I get terrified to move. And almost by definition, all rational thought has stopped, so the fact that you are sobbing uncontrollably and shaking with terror while trying to start your own damned car you’ve been driving without a problem for six years does not strike you as at all unreasonable.

After several years of therapy I can at least recognize one coming on, and I can usually gasp out to my husband between sobs “I’m having — a panic — attack.” But then all I can really do is sit somewhere and let the panic run its course, often while gripping my husband’s hand like a lifeline (it helps, it really does; it seems to keep me grounded in reality and it dampens the terror).

Afterwards, my body is so wrung out that I continue to shake for an hour or so after, and I feel exhausted, the kind of exhausted you have after you just got back from a really emotionally-draining funeral. I often get chills afterwards (maybe because of the sweating) and I have trouble concentrating. Sometimes (but not always) I have a killer, migraine-ish headache afterwards. I watch a lot of sitcom reruns during the aftermath specifically because they’re distracting but require no brainpower.

So that’s what I’ve been going through basically weekly. My doctor’s given me some Xanax as a panic attack “rescue medication” (that is, you use it at the onset of the attack, rather than as a daily drug) which really does help to reduce the duration and intensity of the attack, and makes the aftermath less horrible, but obviously does nothing to prevent the attack in the first place.

Living with me is really unpleasant right now.



So it’s Monday and life doesn’t suck yet, but I have two things on my to-do list that I know is going to MAKE life suck, so I’m sitting here dawdling (and blogging) and not billing hours because I just can’t bear to dig into this and trigger a depressive episode.

On the plus side, my desk is SPECTACULARLY clean.

It’s surprising how long you can actually sit and do nothing before the world falls down around your ears, as long as you don’t mind the dearth of billables.

Bad Day


This actually turned out to be a rotten depression day. I had to take some time alone in my office at noon to just cry — which, of course, professional women can’t do — and my afternoon has just been one long slog of trying not to give in to crying again.

I HATE the billable hour.

The problems with the billable hour are manifold:

1) It rewards slow work and penalizes the efficient. If I can write a contract in two hours, and the guy across the hall takes four hours, HE gets a bonus at the end of the year. I get reprimanded for not billing enough hours.

In my experience, this tends to penalize better lawyers, who tend to read faster and work more efficiently, with fewer false starts.

2) It encourages lying. Your entire performance evaluation, unless you spectacularly fuck up, as an associate is based on billable hours. I see when people come and go from their offices (and not just here, but at other firms). I see them at social events. I KNOW they didn’t bill 80 hours last week. But that’s what they “bill.”

3) It’s bad for clients, because it lets lawyers charge basically whatever they want. Okay, fine, in a litigation. But a lot of legal work could easily be set-fee — that standard contract is worth $500 whether we have a brand-new attorney take six hours to draft it or an experienced one take half an hour. Why is the exact same work worth different amounts?

4) Did I mention it penalizes efficiency?

I liked working in an environment that was product-oriented a lot better. When you finished the day’s tasks, you got to go home. When I was working as a document monkey on this particularly enormous litigation, it was not unusual at all for me to read THREE TIMES as many pages as the guy across the hall who had the same job in eight hours. He often actually stayed late just to read 1/3 as many pages as I did. So let’s say I read 1,000 pages in 8 hours, and he read 300 pages in 10. (Just for nice round, ridiculous numbers.) *I* would get reprimanded at the end of the week for only billling 40 hours versus his 50 hours, while I had produced THREE TIMES the amount of product for the firm. (And he was always missing deadlines. I was always ahead of them.)

It’s a system of really fucking perverse incentives that rewards someone who works slowly and misses deadlines and penalizes someone who works quickly and makes them. But the only thing that mattered is how many hours we billed.

The IT guy outright told me to lie. “Everybody else is dicking around on the internet playing games for 15 minutes of every hour they bill.” (Billing was via a program the IT guy was responsible for creating reports from weekly — he would check it against internet use logs for his own amusement.) “And most of them are IMing all day long no matter what they’re billing on. You should just write down how many hours you NEED. They don’t care how much work you get done as long as you get the hours, and they’ll never know since you’re getting more done than anyone else at your level anyway.”

You hear that, clients? Joe Attorney is billing you $300/hour for playing poker online. Everybody knows. And nobody cares.

Last night I had what I think was my first law nightmare. I was trying to practice law in Britain and I wasn’t licensed as a barrister or solicitor — I can never remember which is which — and for some reason my cat was at the courthouse and my apple tree was growing pumpkin-sized fruit. I woke up in a cold sweat.