TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Lawyer's Bliss: 3,600 Billable Hours In 2017

Bliss 2American Lawyer, Racking Up Those Billable Hours? This Michigan Lawyer Has You Beat:

Ever wonder how your billable hours measure up? Consider this: Daniel Bliss billed 3,600 hours last year.

That’s almost 70 billable hours a week for 52 weeks. That’s 10 billable hours a day if you work seven days. That’s nearly 12 billable hours a day if you decide to take off one day a week.

However you look at it, that’s a lot of hours.

“You know what?” Bliss said. “When the sun shines, you have to make hay.”

You evidently have to “make hay” when the sun doesn’t shine as well if you want to rack up those numbers. Bliss, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at Michigan-based Howard & Howard admits he worked plenty of 12-hour days, evenings and weekends last year. He even racked up billable hours while on vacation.

The self-proclaimed workaholic is actually one of dozens of lawyers in the United States who billed more than 3,000 hours in 2017, according to information reported by law firms for the Am Law 200/NLJ 500 survey. The firms were asked to report the total hours billed by the lawyer who billed the most hours during 2017. ...

Bliss, who works out of the firm’s offices in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and in Las Vegas, said it takes a great deal of discipline and organization to accumulate that many hours. He’s been able to bill an average of 300 hours a month, he said, because he knows exactly what tasks he must accomplish each day.

Bliss, who does patent prosecution, trademark work and litigation, said he usually is at the office by 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave before 7 p.m. He also typically works on weekends. For part of 2017, his wife was out of town so he got into a routine of working a long day at the office, coming home, eating and then working some more. He also works on airplanes while traveling. 

Despite his nose-to-the-grindstone ways, Bliss said he doesn’t expect the same from his associates. “Not everybody is going to be like me,” he said.

See also John Grisham, The Firm 86 (1991) (Tax partner describing billing practices to first-year tax associate: "Every time you look at the file, charge it for an hour. . . . [I]f the [client's] name . . . crosses your mind while you're driving to work, stick it for an hour.") see also id. at 58 ("Most good lawyers can work eight or nine hours a day and bill twelve.").

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I'd be interested to see his time sheets.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | May 15, 2018 2:15:13 AM

One might reasonably ask, at what point in the those 3,600 hours did Mr. Bliss' attention to detail and quality of analysis begin to wane? Perhaps there are super-humans whose mental and physical performance do not decline after some arbitrary point, although I doubt it. Sort of like the folk advice about not buying a car built on a Monday; some of Mr. Bliss' clients might want to think about asking for a discount if their matters are serviced at the end of Mr. Bliss' day.

Posted by: Publius Novus | May 15, 2018 7:12:59 AM

I’m sure he is a very hard worker. No doubt in my mind. I’m also am skeptical that these sorts of massive billable hours would survive a fly-on-the-wall audit in many cases if one were possible.

The most hours I billed when in private practice was a little over 2,400 one year. On top of that, I put in about 100 hours on a pro bono case. And then there were all of the non-billable activities (like tracking those 2,400 billable hours). 2,400 billable hours translate to a bit under 7 hours/day every day of the year without accounting for anything else non-billable that has to get done. It was a lot a work.

Without focusing on the lawyer in the article in particular and instead considering the issue in general:

Someone who bills 3,600 hours a year effectively is claiming that he is never under the weather, never has a wedding, funeral, or party to attend, never has an unproductive day, and never has a billable activity that in retrospect was not worth as much to the client as anticipated and thus had to be written off or down. Never. He likewise is claiming that he always is as effective and his time is as valuable in Hour 12 of the day as it is in Hour 1. He takes minimal or no bathroom breaks (or is billing during them) and routinely eats at his desk, billing while eating. No one could bill this many hours and be meaningfully involved in his family’s life or any organization outside of work.

My hunch is that there is a lot a casual fraud in law-firm billing. It’s not obvious. This is not like the union jobs on the Sopranos where some guys are employed on a construction project but do not work.

The difference between 2,100 hours and 2,300 hours is indistinguishable to the casual observer—a person billing in this range is very busy. If one simply adds .10 to every hour he bills—a level of padding virtually undetectable—it results in 210 additional billable hours for the person already working 2,100.

And the incentives all favor this kind of fraud. Base pay, bonuses, promotions—all generally are tied to the amount of hours billed and you are competing with everyone else in the office for a slice of a limited pie. Other considerations are given lip service, but billable hours are a tangible metric and directly correspond to the firm’s revenues. You’d have to believe that lawyers don’t respond to incentives or are more virtuous than the population at large to think this is not happening in a lot of cases.

Posted by: Curmdugeonly Ex-Clerk | May 15, 2018 8:19:57 AM

So sad, but his kids still love him.

Posted by: Champ | May 15, 2018 9:28:54 AM

Should it really be praised as an accomplishment? He'll probably pass away early in retirement (if he ever retires), meaning he won't enjoy actual life. Likely an absentee father, because it would have been impossible to do both. Or maybe he had no kids, which is probably the best case. I certainly have no desire to compete against him, as I'll be enjoying my kids' baseball games all summer.

Posted by: Peter | May 16, 2018 6:10:36 AM