Dear Amicus Agony,
I’m often caught in a dilemma trying to balance my billable and non-billable work. As we work in a pool system in our firm, I can sometimes get billable work from one partner and non-billable work from another, and it can be quite difficult to meet both their deadlines. Even my friends who don’t work in a pool system sometimes also have to juggle billable and non-billable work from the same partner. What can we do in such a situation?
Torn-In-Two (Or More)
Dear Torn-In-Two (Or More),
You are in a very unenviable position, but this is not an uncommon issue for junior lawyers, especially for those working in larger firms. In fact, this dilemma is unlikely to subside as you climb up in the legal industry, but is likely to intensify, given that the non-billable work will probably be important for you to raise your own visibility as a practitioner and market yourself within and outside of the firm.
So, it is important to start learning to deal with this issue head-on. As a junior, however, your options will be limited. It is important not to automatically treat non-billable work as being less important than billable work, since it might well mean more to the partners than those few extra case authorities for the upcoming hearing, or the half-a-day quicker that you turn the client’s documents. In the same way that you deconflict excessive billable work when the timelines get rough, do the same thing for non-billable work. Be extra sensitive when multiple partners are involved – you don’t want to be a victim of office politics while a junior.
All the same, since your billable hours determine your “contribution” to the firm’s earnings (and therefore your bonus!), don’t end up sacrificing billable hours just to please the partners. You were hired for your legal prowess after all, not for your skill in organising events or in writing case notes.
Of course, try not to keep using billable work as an excuse to delay your timelines for non-billable work (or vice versa). If you are getting too much work, then you should sound off immediately when new work which exceeds your capacity comes in, not when you realise that you can’t meet the deadlines. Hang in there long enough, and perhaps one day, you’ll be the one issuing the non-billable work to your subordinates.
Keep it together,
Dear Amicus Agony,
As a young lawyer, is it better to specialise in a field very early on in a big firm or be a generalist in a smaller firm being exposed to more areas of legal work?
Dear Eager Beaver,
Thank you for raising this age old debate again in the present circumstances. The conundrum is not new – since a long while ago, there always existed a debate on whether lawyers who stay in very silo-ed practices are better or those who deal with a wider range of legal issues but without the specialization, make better lawyers. From an in-house perspective, it might arguably be better to be an all-rounder and to have done many facets of corporate work, or even litigation (as many in-house counsel deal with litigation management too). However, the flip side of the argument could be that staying in private practice in the long run, and specialising is good because you build your practice and become an expert in your field, and clients will turn to you for specific domain expertise.
If you are in a bigger firm that is very pigeon-holed, you might tactfully suggest a change of department after two or three years to expand your practice experience. If you are in a smaller firm, you might get exposure to many sorts of general areas of law, but might not have done the chunky technical aspects that come with the more complex and bigger deals, so again from a work place perspective, you need to adjust and make the best of your environment for yourself and seize all opportunities that come your way. Good luck!