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Billable hours: NQs work harder than mega-earning partners

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And trainees aren’t far behind

Newly qualified (NQ) lawyers are clocking up more billable hours than their mega-earning partner bosses, according to new figures.

The stats reveal the average number of chargeable hours billed by lawyers last year at the UK’s top 100 law firms by revenue. Interestingly the eye-catching figures show that the average NQ at a top ten firm completed 1,437 billable hours, 336 more than the average full equity partner (1,101 hours). Equity partners at these firms can earn upwards of seven-figures a year, whereas NQs are likely on approximately £80,000.

These top ten stats (screenshot below) also show that those just finding their feet in corporate law bill pretty much the same as their partners. Trainees clocked up a billing average of 1,039 hours, just 62 hours less than an equity partner. Spread this out over the year, and it seems trainees are billing just over an hour more than partners a week. Paralegals posted 933 hours for the year.

It is worth noting not all work done by lawyers is chargeable time. Administrative tasks such as filing and tidying, for example, often do not fall within the remit.

Average UK chargeable hours at top 10 law firms

Though NQs and trainees no doubt work hard, it seems junior lawyers some years from qualification work the hardest. Those with over five years post qualification experience (PQE) chalked up an average billable rate of 1,380, while associates with between three and five PQE posted 1,410 hours. Lawyers with one to two years of PQE under their belts billed 1,396 hours, according to the research.

More generally, the figures — buried away in accountancy giant PwC’s 2017 ‘Law Firms Survey’ — show that billing averages are down across the board when compared to the 2016 results. Full equity partner hours dropped by 4.1%, trainees by 10.5% and paralegals by a whopping 16.6%.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

One explanation for this drop, particularly at the junior end of the profession, could be City law firm clients looking to slash hefty legal costs.

Earlier this year, Legal Cheek reported that Deutsche Bank had told its panel of external law firms that it was no longer willing to cough up cash for work completed by trainees and NQs. Reacting to the news, one partner said:

“This is something I have seen for the first time this year. I think it is fair enough for trainees, but for NQs it seems very unfair — they are proper solicitors, so why should they not be paid? I have heard about this at other banks; usually in the US, but never in Europe.”

Meanwhile, some law firms have adopted some slightly unusual tactics to ensure billing remains as high as possible.

Nabarro — which along with Olswang merged with CMS earlier this year — told its lawyers that they could bill clients while on the toilet. Why? Well, according the firm, its dedicated army of associates would “still be thinking about” their client’s problem even while having a pee.

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