'Unbillable Hours' by Ian Graham Will Make Law Students Reconsider

Early in Ian Graham's new book 'Unbillable Hours,' a John Grisham-like true story of his work as a corporate lawyer and how he helped get a murder conviction overturned, he quickly comes to the realization that working at a big Los Angeles law firm wasn't the best career move.

The money is great -- $120,000 as a first-year associate -- but as one of his colleagues points out, working 260,000 billable hours per year comes out to $40 an hour, or what he pays his cleaning lady.

"The firm bills us out to clients at $290 an hour, and even if half that amount goes for overhead, we've paid for our salary after 1,100 hours," his colleague is quoted as saying in the book. "Every hour after we bill after that is profit for the partners. We're just units of income!"

While earning $40 an hour isn't worth complaining about for most people, the lament that workers are "just units of income" can hit home with many workers. But working 80 hours a week as a "monkey scribe" -- as Graham calls his early work reading cases of legal documents -- made the job unbearable.

Like Grisham, only better

unbillable hours'Unbillable Hours' follows a Grisham-like plot and is a similar page-turner; but it's also a real-life story that makes it much more entertaining. The 241-page book, which came out May 4, is Graham's tale of discovering that he wasn't cut out to work at a big law firm, while discovering his passion for a pro bono case that results in Mario Rocha being freed from prison for a gang murder he didn't commit at age 16. (Rocha, 31, is now a sophomore at George Washington University.)

Graham graduated from Rice University in 1997 and the University of Texas Law School in 2001. Between his second and third years of law school, he worked as a summer associate -- similar to an internship -- at the Los Angeles law firm of Latham & Watkins. He worked there as an associate from 2001 to 2006.

Graham admits that he didn't have a higher calling to social justice when he went to work at the law firm, and that he was in it for the money.

"Overwhelmingly the students who go to big law firms -- it's for the paychecks," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

Not prepared for the reality

Law schools don't teach the day-to-day workings of being in the legal profession, Graham told me in an interview, and the long hours and drudgery of his job made the $120,000 he was earning in his first year look like a tradeoff he was willing to eventually give up. He could put up with the hours -- but the brutal detail of his work and not having control over his schedule made it difficult, he said.

Lawyers who want to make partner in law firms, along with all other lawyers there, must have at least 40 billable hours of work each week, he said. But those hours billed to a client don't include another 40 hours working on other things, he said. So at $120,000 a year spread over 52 weeks at 80 hours of work per week, the salary equals $28 an hour.

"The shock initially felt at the long hours and boredom of the work had subsided a bit and been replaced mostly by apathy," Graham writes of his job after working with Rocha for awhile. "Still, while I figured a lot of people worked at jobs they didn't like, most didn't make nearly as much money as I did."

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals and legal assistants held approximately 263,800 jobs in 2008, while lawyers held 759,200. Through 2018, employment is expected to grow much faster than average for paralegals and legal assistants, and about as fast as average for lawyers.

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$46,120: Median annual wages for legal assistants and paralegals according to the May 2008 BLS report. For lawyers, median annual wages were $110,590.

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Associates trying to climb the ladder and become partner can rack up more hours if they want to get to their big payday.

"Every time they make somebody a partner, it's kind of like slicing up part of the equity pie in the firm," Graham said.

No deeper rewards

Much of the work for corporate clients left him with no sense of ownership, and was so demanding that more than half of the 47 "first-years" at the firm left within two years. By the time he left Latham in October 2006, only five of the first-year associates in his group remained at the firm, and two of those left within the next six months.

The pro bono work fulfilled Graham's need to do something meaningful at work, and Latham allowed the work to count toward his billable hours, he said, making the book title a little misleading. But paying cases were deemed better for staying employed. "In terms of career advancement at the firm, taking on the pro bono case wasn't a good decision," he wrote in the book.

When working on a high-stakes deal, Graham knew this wasn't his life's work. "I already knew I wasn't going to be a corporate lawyer," he wrote. "Pushing paper, dotting i's and crossing t's on corporate deal documents, and boring into the fine print of finance documents and stock option grants wasn't for me."

Life after the law

Along with his traveling for his book tour, Graham is an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Graham, 35, says he's found work that is satisfying and he no longer has to work as a "monkey scribe."

"This job has no soul," one of his colleagues says in the book of working at a big law firm. "I don't do anything. I don't make anything. I clean up other people's messes and write memos about it. I don't admire any of the people I work for or want to be like them in any way."

Finding meaning in work -- as the colleague, Graham and some others at the law firm discovered -- is much more important that earning a lofty paycheck.

Next:Six Surprising Six-Figure Jobs: No Degree Required >>

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