Slandering billables

Stopwatch test

LAST WORD: Slandering billables

Lexpert, February 2007

By Marzena Czarnecka

We’ve become so jaded about lateral moves, don’t you think? I can’t think of the last time a piece of “Have you heard who just moved to…” gossip made me tingle. Even the Calgary Osler-Bennett Jones exchange and the Toronto Bennett Jones-Torys moves—whatever. Goodmans and Stikes exchanging partners? Shrugalicious. And yet it wasn’t that long ago when every move of a certain vintage had tongues wagging, ears twitching, and lawyers cross-country looking at their share of the point (and current and future status within a firm) and wondering if—and where—they could do better.

Jaded, that’s what I call it. Of course, within any firm that loses a partner (of a certain vintage), his or her colleagues still do the financial navel-gazing. But it’s almost half-hearted, routine. The zest has gone out of the exercise.

So, boys and girls, I think we are ready for the next step. You’ve accepted that lateral moves are a pretty normal and shrewd career move. We’re all grown-ups here and most of us hard-nosed business people to boot—when Tim, Lorna and Harry switch teams, it is not a betrayal of the alma mater that nurtured and nourished them at its loving bosom since before they could spell “hereinthereforehenceforth.” Are you ready for the next philosophical plunge?

Stop slandering your departing colleagues.

Now, I know in this circle, “slander” has a very specific definition, and I use the word advisedly. What is the worst, most damaging thing you can say about a lawyer (not just of a certain vintage)? And what’s the thing you say most often when asked about the impact of a partner’s departure?

“He’s not a great biller.”

Now, there’s a whole string of secondary phrases with which former colleagues dismiss the achievements of someone making a career move. Yesterday, he was a valued partner and a member of the executive committee. Today, he’s a second-stringer who never fit in, and “frankly, hasn’t pulled his weight for a while.” You insinuate—and, sometimes, you actually say—that “she’s been on the market for a while,” that “it was only a matter of time,” that “it’s the best resolution for everyone.”

But above all: “Her billables suck.”

Come on. Granted, not everyone who crosses the street bills in New York-style numbers. But most of them—they do OK. More than OK. That’s why the competition wants them—cause they have good billables. Part of the lateral recruitment dance involves each side convincing the other that together, they would have even better billables. But to be a desirable acquisition, a courted lawyer has to have good billables to begin with, and by good, I mean… better than average.

You know I’m right. If you’ve done a move yourself, you know full well that one of the things that happens before the recruiting firm and the recruit sign on the dotted line is a bit of a financial striptease, and the one who ends up significantly more naked is the lawyer, not the law firm. There is much room for misrepresentation, misunderstanding and subterfuge during the courtin’, but among the things slapped down on the table in black and white—the lawyer’s historic billable hours. And if they suck, the dance pretty much stops right there.

(That’s why, even though there are firms that claim they don’t keep track of billable hours, there are no lawyers who don’t keep track of billable hours. I know of one major and two smaller players who claim not just that billables play no part in determining compensation, but also that they don’t keep track of individual billable hours at all. I don’t want to say they lie when they say don’t keep track but, consider this. They have to keep track of client and matter billable hours, of course, and they know who’s working on which matter for which file, so if someone wants to check up on someone…)

Not that there aren’t lawyers whose billables don’t suck. There are more than a few underperforming eggs at the best of firms. But let’s face it, among the many adjectives one employs to describe the legal profession (at a certain level of the game), you won’t find “coddling,” “gentle,” “patient” and “tolerant of failure.” Lawyers whose billables really suck are ushered out—increasingly quickly and increasingly regardless of their past performance—and rarely to competitors of note (remember that financial striptease?).

The moves of the poor billers—well, frankly, you don’t notice them, you don’t hear about them, you don’t talk about them. One of the more amusing thing about law firm culture in general is that while ex-partners feel perfectly justified in vilifying and slandering a “top of his game” lawyer by saying he’s not a great biller, chivalry infects them when removing a weak link. When a partner whose been struggling to clock 600 a year is farmed out to an in-house client, a third-tier non-competitor or to, er, form her own “consulting” (wink, wink) business or “pursue other interests,” no one says she’s a poor biller.

That would be very bad manners.

And yet, when he’s not a poor biller—it’s okay to say he is?

Come on, boys and girls. Let’s grow with the times.

Marzena Czarnecka is a freelance writer, regular contributor to LEXPERT, champion of the maligned lateral hire and friend of the misunderstood mega-biller. (Christmas Card 2006 report: four very similar outdoor hockey pictures from four very similar corporate law firms; three snowflake representations of various sizes; predominance of the colour navy across the country, closely followed by purple. Thank you to everyone who played. The game continues in 2007.)

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