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Best Practice: Law Firm Billable Hours - Attorneys Not Meeting Expectations

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am a partner with a fourteen attorney business litigation defense firm in Los Angeles. I am the member on our three member executive committee that is responsible for financial oversight. This year we put in place an 1800 annual (150 hours per month) billable hour expectation for associate attorneys. No one has ever reached 150 hours. Are our expectations unrealistic? What is our problem? I would appreciate your thoughts.

A. I do not think that a 1800 annual billable hour expectation is unrealistic. Litigation defense firms typically have an expectation of 1800 to 2000 annual billable hours. Many litigation defense firms that I am currently working with have a 2000 billable hour expectation with many attorneys working 2200 billable hours.

Typical causes for an attorney not meeting expectations are:

  1. Not working or putting in enough hours.
  2. Not enough work.
  3. Poor time management habits.
  4. Poor timekeeping habits.

I suggest that you meet with each associate and discuss each of these possible causes.

Since this seems to be an across the board problem I suspect that the firm may not have enough work to support these billable hour expectations. Many of our clients are having this problem. They are hiring more attorneys that they actually need, have overcapacity, and simply don't have the work to support billable hour expectations.  

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, ( is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at

Posted on November 23, 2016 by Morgan Yingst
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