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In a perfect world, lawyers could always track billable time as soon as their work is done, whether sitting at a desk or in an airport, riding in a taxi or waiting for an appointment to start. But the reality is … this is not the reality of lawyer timekeeping. Many lawyers don’t track their time contemporaneously (in real time, as they go). Instead they try to re-create their workday hours, days or even weeks later, piecing together bits of time spent and disparate communications from throughout the day.
The invoice drafting, or prebill, process at law firms suffers greatly from this lack of timekeeping rigor. In January, the Orion Prebill Survey found that 84.4 percent of law firm respondents reported the No. 1 cause of delay in prebill generation was “lack of contemporaneous timekeeping habits.” That is, time isn’t entered as the work is done.
Lawyers face a real struggle entering their time throughout the day. Perhaps they’re too busy and believe they’ll remember to record it later in the afternoon. Or maybe they lack the proper technology to support good timekeeping hygiene. All justifications aside, inaccurate timekeeping is a major negative, costing firms money, creating anxiety and leading to inaccurate bills that clients may object to paying.
So what can lawyers and firms do to make sure time spent working is properly billed? Here are four ways to improve timekeeping habits.
1. Take advantage of technology tools for contemporaneous timekeeping. Modern technology includes artificial intelligence and machine-driven tools that can compile billable hours in real time. Software on the desktop, smartphone or tablet systematically records time spent on emails, document generation, calendared meetings and phone calls. Time-tracking tools can work in your favor, keeping track of your daily work activities and serving up a summary-for-review on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to ensure accurate timekeeping.
2. Set and enforce firmwide policies for timekeeping and time submission. Develop written policies that outline standards for accurate, contemporaneous timekeeping and spell out time entry deadlines. To have “teeth” and ensure compliance, these policies need to be enforced, including potentially levying penalties (financial or otherwise) for those who do not synchronously track time and submit it punctually.
3. Set the same expectations for all timekeepers — no exceptions. Too often, a different set of expectations is set for firm associates than for partners, or exceptions are made for rainmakers who bring in abundant business. However, timekeeping policies should apply equally to all lawyers and timekeepers to establish fairness. Otherwise, the firm’s credibility suffers and it is more difficult to enforce your policies.
4. Balance a “carrot or stick” approach. When it comes to enforcing timekeeping policies, some firms offer a carrot while others use a stick. Both approaches can work, depending on a law firm’s culture.
For example, Firm A took the “carrot” approach by handing out “mad money” weekend cash to the legal assistants each Friday, rewarding them for accurately entering lawyers’ time. All time had to be entered by Friday afternoon. If it wasn’t entered (regardless of whose fault it was), no one got their cash for the weekend. This approach created teamwork and peer enforcement.
Firm B took a “stick approach.” If time wasn’t entered promptly, lawyers would not receive their direct deposit payroll payments. While less positively oriented, this was also an effective deterrent to breaking the rules.
Both of these firms could certainly increase compliance by providing technology tools to record the time efficiently and to monitor lawyers’ and legal assistants’ progress.
When selecting a time and billing system, be sure to include lawyers in the evaluation process. Encourage them to say which product tracks their time the most seamlessly as they perform various activities throughout the day, both in and out of the office. Take care to select a system that has tools for effectively monitoring and enforcing your firm’s goals. There are a lot of timekeeping tools out there, but if lawyers can’t see how they’re doing, it’s hard to expect them to reach the bar set before them, much less surpass it.
There is no perfect-world scenario for lawyer timekeeping, no way to create a 100 percent accurate accounting of every minute of the day. However, by using good tools, setting and enforcing consistent timekeeping policies, and developing a motivation system, you can greatly improve your timekeeping proficiency.
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