How to calculate your real hourly rate

question mark clockDo you know what your time is worth?

If you’re a professional and you have an hourly rate, you’re probably used to measuring your time in tenth-of-an-hour increments. You keep track of the work you do on timesheets, and then you multiply those totals by your hourly rate. That calculation gives you a value of the work that you performed for your client.

Or does it?

Let’s say that you’re a CPA with five years of professional experience. Let’s further say that you spend an hour working on the audit of a client. Your rate is, say, $120 an hour. By that calculation, at least in theory, the work you performed during that hour was worth $120. And that’s the amount that the client will be charged.

But an hour is an hour. (Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is of course beyond the scope of this post.) So what if I spend the hour doing audit work for that client, instead of you? Isn’t it also worth $120?

“No, you idiot,” you say. “You’re not even an accountant.”

That’s true, I reply. But what if I send away for my very own CPA license from an ad in the back of a magazine? Then suddenly I’m an accountant, too. Now is my hour of work on this client’s audit worth $120?

“Of course not,” you scoff. (I get a lot of scoffing.) “It’s not about the license, you maroon. It’s about the knowledge I accumulated over my five years of working.”

Bingo! You just figured the whole thing out. It isn’t the hour of work that creates the value. It’s the knowledge that you’ve accumulated that creates it. You and I could spend an identical amount of time working on that audit, but because I don’t have any knowledge beyond “debits on the left and credits on the right,” the accounting work I do would be essentially worthless. So the single hour on the timesheet does nothing to measure the value that you and I create with our hour.

This is what Peter Drucker meant when he coined the phrase knowledge worker. The value created by a knowledge worker — an accountant, a lawyer, a designer, a consultant, an architect, or an advertising professional — derives from the knowledge that he or she is transferring or applying.

And where does this knowledge come from? It primarily comes from two places: education and experience. So if you’re going to use the amount of time spent to measure the value you create, then you had better account for all the time spent. (You realize, of course, that I don’t advocate trying to measure the value you create by marking the passage of time. I’m just making the point that if you choose that particular metric, you’d better make sure that you’re measuring everything.)

So let’s now try to figure out what your real hourly rate is. First we’ll look at your education. If you grew up in the United States, you were most likely required to go to school from first grade through twelfth grade, plus kindergarten. Most professionals also attended college, so you need to count those hours. Depending on the profession, you probably also attended some graduate school. During all these years of education, you amassed much of the knowledge that you now transfer to your client in your professional life. So you need to add up all those hours.

(Yes, I appreciate that some of those hours are apt to be more valuable then others. You probably learned more things in your second year of law school than you did in kindergarten. Or did you? I don’t remember much from my second year of law school, but I still know what a silent e does. But based on your current timesheet usage anyway, hours are hours. You know that some of the hours you spend working are more valuable than others. You just figure that it all evens out in the end. Using that same assumption, we can measure your education hours as a single total.)

Once you’ve added up your time spent being educated, we need to turn to your professional experience. Obviously, an accountant who has been practicing twenty years knows a heck of a lot more than an accountant who’s only been practicing for one year. So we add up the hours you’ve spent working, too.

So to calculate your Actual Hourly Amount, we need to add your total education hours plus your total professional-history hours plus the hour that you’re doing the actual work for the client. Then we take your hourly billing rate and divide it by that sum. That gives you your Actual Hourly Amount.

You can use this handy calculator to calculate your figure. Just replace the numbers with your own. The grade-school and high-school hours are built in. (If you are reading this post in an email or an RSS reader and don’t see the calculator after this paragraph, click here to go to the post on

Surprised? Now that you include all the time that you spent being able to do the work for that client, you suddenly realize that you’re only earning pennies an hour. And I don’t care how experienced you are or how high your billing rate is. Using this calculator, top lawyer David Boies, who bills at $1,220 an hour, only earns one penny for each of those hours when you account for all his knowledge-gathering time spent (education plus 46 years of practice). (I find it ironic that I earned 1.1 pennies an hour, based on 17 years experience and a phantom rate of $600 an hour. I was a very good lawyer, but I was no David Boies.)

Try the calculator with other rates or different levels of professional experience. See what you can look forward to later in your career. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

The point of calculating your Actual Hourly Amount is to show you once and for all that timekeeping is a ridiculous way to measure the value of a professional’s work. I hope that your AHA moment will lead you to realize that the value of the knowledge you sell is based on what it’s worth to your clients when you use that knowledge to solve their problems.

Two kinds of lawyers

There are only two kinds of lawyers in the world:

Lawyers who price, and lawyers who don’t. Everything else is lip service, or window dressing, or sleight of hand.

Lawyers who price work very hard to try to figure out what their client’s needs are and what the value is to the client of satisfying those needs. They then come up with a price that is less than or equal to that value, and they tell the client that price before performing the service. The client either accepts that price or does not, and if so, the lawyer does the work at that price. And the price for that service doesn’t change. If the needs unforeseeably change, then a new price will be arrived at. But remember: we’re talking prices, not estimates.

And that’s it. It’s that simple. (It may not be easy, but it’s simple.)

If you don’t do this, then you’re the other kind of lawyer: the kind who doesn’t price.

Obviously, lawyers who bill their time make up the bulk of this category. Telling a client what your rate is and then giving a vague estimate of the time you think you might spend is not pricing. Not by a long shot. Making adjustments to the bill at the end of the month to put the total amount more in line with the value delivered is not pricing. Tracking your time to try to determine any kind of concept of value is not pricing.

Capped hourly fees are not pricing. Blended rates are not pricing. (They’re just a ripoff.) Hybrid fees are not pricing. AFAs (“alternative fee arrangements” — the in-vogue thing to call different alternative billing schemes) are not pricing.

Giving clients a choice between a price and hourly billing isn’t pricing. It’s a copout, and it tells the client that you don’t believe in the value of your services. Tracking your time to see if your “losing money” on priced engagements is the same kind of copout.

Project management is not pricing. Six Sigma is not pricing. Neither is Lean Six Sigma. Or Portly Six Sigma. Or whatever. (And I don’t care if you’re a black belt, orange belt, or a braided-leather belt with a giant John Deere buckle. It ain’t pricing.)

You can go to all the two-day seminars on AFAs you want, but mostly you’ll be learning about Not Pricing. Your time would be better spent learning about your client and how they value the solutions to their problems and whether you can make a profit solving their problems for that amount.

That’s pricing.

Originally published on The Client Revolution

There are only 2 types of law-firm fees

If I read another article about “alternative fee arrangements” or hear of another two-day seminar explaining all the various and complicated AFAs out there, I’m going to try to swallow my tongue. (Disclaimer: This is of course hyperbole. I’m not going to do that. And don’t you try it either, just to see if you can do it. You can’t. End of disclaimer.)

Lawyers beholden to the Prohibition Era model of billing and the consultants who court them are desperately trying to show how complex and scary AFAs are. The clients and other lawyers who read these articles and go to these seminars walk away shaking their heads and surrender to sticking with the old billable-hour model. Maybe with a discounted rate, please.

But I’m here to tell you that it is not at all complicated. In fact, if you have seven seconds, I can tell you about all the different types of law-firm fees. Ready?

There are two:

  1. Time-based pricing
  2. Solution-based pricing

That is all.

No, really. It’s no more complicated than that. Time-based pricing is what nearly every law firm does, where the price of the legal services depends on the time spent doing the work and the rate of the “timekeeper.”

(In truth, I’m being generous here, because it’s not really “pricing” at all. Pricing is when you tell the client what something will cost them before they buy it; time-based law firms don’t do that at all.)

Under the time-based-pricing model, invented in 1919, every activity is worth the same amount on a minute-by-minute (or really, six-minute-by-six-minute) basis, regardless of how important the task is. With few exceptions, every client is charged the same per hour, regardless of their differing needs. The only measurement of value is the amount of sand that has dropped in the hourglass.

Solution-based pricing is when a law firm sets a price based on the value of the solution to the client. It’s that simple. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. It takes a lot of thought and preparation and understanding and empathy and experience to figure out how much this particular client values this particular solution at this particular moment. But that’s OK because we’re professional knowledge workers, not pieceworkers in a pin factory.

Clients — simple question: Do you want the price of your legal work to be based on the time lawyers spent, or on the value you place on the solution? It’s one or the other.

(See, I just spared you that two-day seminar on AFAs. You’re welcome.)

What do you think? Can you come up with any other methods? Bet you can’t. But give it a shot in the comments. (I particularly look forward to time-based lawyers protesting about how hourly billing is a kind of solution-based pricing. Good luck with that.)

Originally published in The Client Revolution

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