The “Unbillable” Hour – How to Manage It

Measuring time in six minute increments quickly becomes second nature for attorneys in private practice.  We track every minute spent on a client’s file and manage the billable hour to provide the most efficient and effective representation.  But our unbillable hours may slip away, neglected. 

It’s easy to start the New Year by diving headfirst into work.  However, make it a priority to set aside time this month to create goals for 2016 beyond how you will spend your billable hours.

  1. Take time to reflect and plan.

    If you set goals for 2015, review them and see how you did.  Don’t beat yourself up where you fell short; instead, assess the situation and understand why you didn’t accomplish what you had set out to achieve.  Is it something that is no longer a priority for you?  If so, understand why, and then move on.  If it is something you still hope to accomplish, take time to think why the goal went unmet, and map out some steps to fare better in the New Year. 

    Also reflect on 2015 as a whole.  What unexpected challenges did you face?  How did you overcome them?  What problems will linger in the upcoming year? 

    With an assessment of the past year in mind, set your 2016 goals.  Think not just about goals for your cases, but also for your overall practice, and your life in general.  Do you want to grow your practice?  Develop or modify your marketing plan and set concrete business development goals for yourself.  Are you anticipating changes in your personal life?  Mapping out your year will help prevent a clash between the demands of your billable and unbillable hours.  After a long day of preparing witnesses for trial, not many of us want to pick out kitchen flooring (been there, done that, will never do it again).

    Set mini-goals with particular timeframes (weekly, monthly or quarterly), and check in throughout the year to measure how you are doing.  If you find yourself going off-track, take the time to reassess the goal, and redirect, if needed.

  2. Plan for your “down time” to maximize it.

    Morning jogs, coffee runs and lunch breaks may be optimized to further your goals for 2016.  Invite a colleague from another firm to join you for your run.  You’ll increase your heart rate, while enhancing that relationship you’ve been meaning to nurture.  Grab coffee with your mentor and talk about the latest challenge you’re facing.  Enjoy lunch with the director of the nonprofit you’ve been thinking about joining.  Not every unbillable hour needs to be planned with one of your 2016 goals in mind, but if even one bit of “down time” every week is planned strategically, you’ll be that much closer to achieving your goals.

    When you check how things are progressing with your 2016 goals, do it with purpose.  Set aside regular times to evaluate the status of your goals, and give yourself sufficient uninterrupted stretches to really think about how things are going and assess whether adjustments need to be made.  While the time is not billable, it is well-spent and will enhance your professional and personal life.

  3. Maintain focus during your unbillable hours. 

    A quick look at the day’s news can turn into a detour to the latest celebrity or sports gossip, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in Kardashian drama or the playoffs.  Whether you are reading an article on the latest developments in your area of law or organizing your office, plan out your unbillable hours.  Set a time to do what you need, block out distractions and give yourself a fixed amount of time to accomplish the chore, just as you would for a billable task.

  4. Get more sleep. 

    This has been one of my goals for the past three years straight.  But I’m not going to beat myself up over having to roll this onto my list of 2016 goals because if I had a nickel for every attorney that is sleep deprived, I would be enjoying the sun on my yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean right now.  The very nature of our chosen profession means we are ready to serve our clients’ needs, eager to increase our firm’s profitability and driven to live full and busy lives.  Sleep often does not make it onto the priority list.

    However, maximizing our unbillable nights to get more sleep can help us accomplish more of the things we are driven to achieve.  More sleep means stronger immunity, greater concentration and memory, and improved mood.  Fewer sick days, greater efficiency at the office, and tolerance for that hostile opposing counsel all sound like great things to attain in 2016.

    Going to bed fifteen minutes earlier each night, eliminating caffeine from your diet by late afternoon or early evening, and turning off all devices an hour before bedtime are what the experts suggest to improve sleep quality and quantity.  My additional suggestion is to get comfortable saying “no.”  Turn down the invitation to a mid-week girls’ night out.  Limit the number of evening networking events you attend in a week.  Decline or delegate tasks at the office if your workload is going to create a lot of late nights.

By setting goals for your unbillable time in 2016, you can achieve greater efficiency in your professional and personal life.  I’d write more, but I have to catch my zzz’s.