• Home
  • The Truth about the Billable Hour

One important aspect of law firm life that is nearly impossible to avoid is the “billable hour.” Most law firms make their money by billing their clients by the hour. In order to be profitable to your firm, you must make enough money from your billable hours not only to cover your salary and your overhead, but also to generate revenue for the firm. It’s not a complicated equation – the more hours you bill, the more revenue for the firm. 

Firms “average,” “target” or “minimum” stated billables typically range between 1700 and 2300, although informal networks often quote much higher numbers. The NALP Directory of Legal Employers (www.nalpdirectory.com) contains billable hour information in the “hour and lifestyle” tab, although many firms choose not to share their data. 

Not all law firms have the same emphasis on billable hours. Public interest law firms, smaller law firms, and law firms outside of large metropolitan areas often require less billable hours and may place more emphasis on training, client development, community-related activities and the like. In addition, government and public interest employers typically do not have any billable hour requirements because they do not bill their hours to a paying client. 


A. The Full Time Job: Target 1800 Billable Hours


Assume you "work" from 8:00am-6:00pm each day 


Assume you take an hour for lunch 


Assume you take two 15 minute coffee breaks 


Assume you spend a half-hour reading legal updates
and reviewing general correspondence 


Assume you will need to attend department meetings,
occasional conferences, and do CLE


This means that you work 10 hours a day but may bill


If you work a 5 day week

x 5

You have been at work 50 hours and billed


If you do this all year long, and we assume:
• 3 weeks vacation
• 2 weeks holiday
• No sick or personal days


You will work 47 weeks

x 47

And have billed an annual average of


To gain an extra 70 hours to be respectable you could:


(a) Add approximately 1.5 hours a week
(approximately 20 minutes a day)
1.5 x 47 weeks =


So come in at 8:00am and work until 6:20pm M-F
You have achieved


BUT  you have been "at work"


The Commute
•With a half hour commute (to your desk and working)
you are "working" from 7:30am to 6:50pm
•With a one hour commute you are "working" from
7:00am to 7:20pm, Monday-Friday


(b) Work one Saturday a month
10:00am-5:00pm with 1 nonbillable hour 
6 x 12 months=


You have now billed


BUT... you have been "at work"



B. The Overtime Job: Target 2200 Billable Hours


Assume you "work from 8:00am-8:00pm each day


Assume you take an hour for lunch and an hour 
for dinner


Assume you take four 15 minute bathroom/coffee 


Assume you will need the same time for department
meetings, conferences and CLE


This means you "work" 12 hours a day but bill only


You do this 5 days a week

x 5

You have "worked" 60 hours but have billed only


If you do this all year long, and we assume:
• 3 weeks vacation
• 2 weeks holiday
• No sick days or personal days


You will work 47 weeks

x 47

And have billed an annual average of


To gain the needed 200+ hours you could add two 
Saturdays a month


If you work 10-5 two Saturdays per month with 1 
nonbillable hour, you will have
6 billables per day x 2 = 12 x 12 months =


For a new total of...


Still short!


So, add another Saturday a month for 10 months
(take a break in Nov. & Dec. for the holidays)
6 x 10 months =


You made it! You have billed


However, you have been "at work"


The Commute
• With a half hour commute you are "working" from
7:30am to 8:30pm Monday-Friday
And 9:30am-5:30pm three Saturdays a month
• With a one hour commute you are "working" from 
7:00am to 9:00pm Monday-Friday
And 9:00am to 6:00pm three Saturdays a month


Keep in mind that these schedules do not account for personal calls at work, training/observing, talking with coworkers, a longer lunch (to exercise or shop perhaps), a family funeral, pro bono work (if not treated as billable hours), serving on a Bar committee, writing an article for the bar journal, or interviewing an applicant. When contemplating offers from firms, ask questions to learn more about their billable hour policies and practices.


-Updated July 2017