Alex said with a sigh, “January is like Groundhog Day with billable hours reset to zero, and it all starts over.”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard this said. For many lawyers, the New Year comes with a sense of fatigue as the billable hour cycle starts anew.
They have a point. The billing cycle is starting again, and the starting point is zero.
And yet, how we think about the world defines our experience.
If you are interested in coaching yourself through this malaise, read on.
Start with a reframe. “The billable hours may reset, but your career does not,” says Coach Lora McIntutf. “Each year offers another building block in a long, successful career that you are building over time. You don’t start from the basement each year. You build on what you did in prior years. Each block is unique, showing all the accomplishments and challenges overcome in a given year.”
Lora recommends considering this question: “In this upcoming year, how will you create another important building block that not only adds important structure but also adds more unique character to the magnificent career you are building?”
One lawyer I know began in 2023 determined to get better on her feet in court. She studied up, sought help from advisors, and watched other advocates perform. To her surprise, at the end of the year, a senior opposing counsel pulled her aside after a court appearance to tell her he had advised his juniors to learn from her exceptional performance.
Her effort led to improved skills and ultimately turned a deficit into an asset by the end of the year. She starts the New Year with a new area of strength that she can continue to build on.
Take a moment to think about the professional building blocks you have already put in place.
What skills, abilities, and strengths are now a part of your professional foundation?
How do you want to add to your foundation this year?
What do you want to clear away to open space for new opportunities this year? You might approach this question literally – a messy office may distract you. or you can explore the question metaphorically. What are you holding onto, and how would letting go of that give you more energy for what matters most?
What priorities would you like to focus on in the New Year?
When setting your priorities, watch out for the shoulds. “I should do this. I should make this a priority.” We even have a coaching term for it; we call it shoulding on yourself!
Please put aside the shoulds and focus on what you would most like to give attention to.
- What priorities and commitments do you want to give energy to in the New Year?
- What do you need to say No to this year to say Yes to those priorities and commitments?
One last question: Looking around you, right where you are now, what is one small thing you see that is in your power to change for yourself?
Returning to the billable hours, it may be that this is something you are struggling with and a skill you want to improve.
If you are in a legal practice that requires hourly billing, it is crucial to develop a simple billing routine so that your focus can be on doing good work, serving clients well, and investing in professional development.
Coach Janiene Chand says if billing is a skill you haven’t masted yet – try a refresh:
“Instead of thinking of the start of the year as a time to restart, you can think of it as an opportunity to refresh. Take the opportunity to do things differently, including your approach to billable hours. Look at the year before and check in with yourself. What worked well with your approach? What didn’t work well? How would you like this year to be different?”
One way to refresh your approach is to give attention to the daily small number of hours you wish to record and allow your small daily wins to accumulate over the year. Shift your attention from the annual target to the daily objective.
Carina Bittel, Legal Management Consultant, breaks it down this way:
“The challenge is when people focus on the big number – the total annual target, which is a lot of hours to contemplate all at once. There is also a corresponding anxiety of falling behind and having it on your back all year. Sometimes, lawyers will start the year slowly and feel like catching up is hopeless. I encourage people to break their billable hour commitment into smaller pieces and then chip away at that target one piece at a time.” (Read this article for a detailed breakdown on calculating your daily billing target.)
The bottom line:
This New Year, focus on your personal and professional priorities and the small steps that will carry these forward. Please don’t give your billable hour target more real estate in your mind than it deserves. Make recording time into a simple daily habit, focusing on making good use of each workday.