Law Firms Versus Corporations: What Counts As Work

Maybe firms should value certain things for which the firm is not paid. But firms don’t. And corporations do.

Is this work?

At a law firm, you know what counts as work.

Legal research, drafting a brief, taking a deposition, attending a client meeting, arguing an appeal.

You know:  Work.

Productive stuff.  That moves the ball.  For which you can ask a client to pay.

There’s a word for other things that you do during the day:  Vacation.

Well . . . not exactly vacation.  At most firms, you can write down all the other stuff under some nonbillable category.  At the end of the year, it wasn’t billable time, so you might as well have been on vacation.  But the firm let you feel better about that time because you recorded it on a timesheet.

What’s weird about corporations is that the other stuff counts as work.

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true:  You get paid for doing the other stuff.

People think it matters.

Like face-to-face meetings with people in other offices.  You’re out in Los Angeles.  You work for a day.  And then you spend an extra day, just chatting with people on your team, or in the business, or whatever.  Chatting with them for no particular purpose.  You’re just showing your face to folks on your team, or meeting folks in the business; you ask people how it’s going and shoot the breeze for a while.

Honest to God, you get paid for this. 

Some folks make special trips solely for the purpose of showing the flag around the world.

This is considered to be work.

You spend four hours in a “performance calibration” session, designed to ensure that you use the same general definition of a “3” for everyone whose performance was rated a “3” in the law department.

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They don’t do that at law firms.  They don’t formally rate people.  They surely don’t hold meetings to ensure that the ratings are fair.  And if they did these things, firms would know that this wasn’t actually work.  It was — you know — nonbillable time.  At the end of the year, you could have been on the beach with your family or you could have attended a “calibration session.”  It’s the same thing either way — vacation.

Meeting every week to chat with the people on your team.  Giving performance reviews.  Receiving performance reviews.  Attending the global law conference.

At law firms, attending the “litigation meeting” or a “partners’ meeting” is a chore.  You’re required to attend (or you wouldn’t) but, at the end of the year, you would rather have been enjoying your vacation hours with your family instead of spending those hours with people at the firm.

At a corporation, attending the global law conference is work.

For which you’re paid.

And people think it matters.

Similarly, suppose management offers some webinar on something.  You can attend.  It’s work.

You must lead a meeting during which you’ll “cascade” some message from on high down to the troops.  You spend time preparing for this internal meeting.  It’s allowed.  You get paid for it.  It’s work. 

I know what you’re thinking:  “They pay you for that!?  Life at a corporation must be great!” 

I suppose it is.  But you’ll surely go home from your in-house job some night thinking, “I was in the office all day.  I talked to a lot of people.  But it would have been nice to do some work.” 

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Old habits die hard.

Perhaps law firms are too stingy characterizing things as work.  Maybe tending to the career development of folks around you is worth doing.  Maybe business development efforts are worth undertaking.  Maybe firms should value certain things for which the firm is not paid.

But firms don’t.

And corporations do.


It’s remarkable.

Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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Author: Edward Lott

Edward Lott, Ph.D., M.B.A. is President and Managing Partner of Allentown-based ForLawFirmsOnly Marketing, Inc., a local search and digital marketing agency that offers clients lead generation, local seo and Google Maps Domination. Ed has been a digital entrepreneur since 1994, having discovered very early the opportunities the Internet offered. After having spent over two decades helping attorneys grow their practice, Ed joined the staff of ForLawFirmsOnly Marketing as President and Managing Partner, where he is expanding the agency’s cutting-edge services to the legal market. A true marketing futurist, Ed's vast experience working directly with attorneys has given him a unique perspective on law firm marketing not found in many other digital marketing agencies. Ed has reshaped the offerings of ForLawFirmsOnly to focus on growing law firms through a holistic approach to digital marketing evident in the reformulated lead generation processes now in place. Want to learn more about ForLawFirmsOnly Marketing, their lead generation programs, or just talk to Ed about his visions for helping law firms grow? Call him at 855-943-8736.

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