Thanks for all your comments. I just have a couple more things to say about this topic though. First, I need to clarify that I work in insurance defense. Billable hours are hard at any firm, but when your clients are insurance companies, billable hours are an exceptional pain in the ass. You all know the reputation of insurance companies when it comes to handling claims... "deny, deny, deny." (side note: I think insurance companies might actually be hated more than attorneys, not quite sure though). Well, they have the same mentality when it comes to paying their attorneys.
Our clients are VERY strict about what bills they will pay. I have to word my billing entries just perfectly if I want them to be accepted as a legitimate billing task. It's a steep learning curve. And we get audited quite often- just think of the billable hours I lose from reviewing my time entries, correcting my audited entries and appealing their denial of my time entries.
I think you all are right that generally, associates should not be cutting their own time. In general, I don't do this unless a partner specifically tells me I can't bill more than X hours for a certain task. For example: one partner wanted me to put together a checklist and memo about how to subpoena non-parties. He told me this was not billable. When I had to put together a subpoena, he instructed me that whenever he's the partner on the case, a task like this cannot be billed at more than a .1. Yeah, that's 6 minutes for something that took me 30 minutes to do. This problem doesn't come up very often though and I know as I do more of these things I will become more efficient. (For the person who asked about stipulations: we generally will see if the other side will stipulate to provide records. If they won't, then we will subpoena the records from the party who maintains them. In my experience, plaintiffs will usually stipulate to authorize the release of medical records unless they have prior injuries and want to keep them from being discovered.)
Another billing problem is purely the result of me being at the bottom of the totem pole. When there are non-billable, non-client related marketing projects, those tasks generally will fall on me until the firm hires someone who is greener than I am.
So I know this billable hour thing will get easier when I become more experienced and when the non-billable work gets handed down to someone else. The problem is that I'm a semi-perfectionists. If there is a guideline or a bar set, I like to exceed it as much as possible. Not meetng my weekly/monthly billable hour requirement is killing me. I feel like a bad associate. I know the firm will cut me some slack for a while but it personally irks me that I can't meet the goal. I survived law school so you'd think I'd be used to being just mediocre or just passing by now. But I'm not. The inner perfectionist in me still lives.
I want to beat the billable hour. I will beat the billable hour. I just need to find the motivation. Or I need to block all access to the internet/my phone/tv/cooking magazines/my child. Yeah, that might work.