Learn more about law firm economics and the billable hour in this guide.

When you become an associate at a law firm, you may not realize it, but your employer has a lot in common with a hot dog vendor. Why is that? They’re both businesses. The hot dog vendor is peddling red hots, and your employer is selling time–your time and the time of every other lawyer who works there.

Maybe you’ve got the whole business thing down pat. If so, I don’t want to insult you, and I invite you to skip ahead to the billables section of this guide. But from what I hear from partners at law firms everywhere, that’s probably not the case–especially if you went straight from college to law school. Many partners complain new associates don’t understand the nature of the business they’re getting into.

Here’s how the business of law works. As a general rule, partners attract clients to the firm. When you, as a new associate, do work for those clients, the hours that you put on your time sheets generate reports, which generate bills, which generate revenue, which in turn pay overheads, associate salaries, and profits to the partners.

As you move up the food chain at the firm—usually faster at small firms and slower at large firms—you are expected to shift your focus from work generation to business generation. As one partner has described it, your job at a large firm is to “mine the ore” in the beginning. Clients are, in the words of another partner at a large firm, “kind of a distraction.” You’re a worker bee when you’re a new associate at a big firm, and you’re not expected to bring in clients off the bat. In contrast, a small firm may expect you to generate business almost immediately.