These tips can make sure timekeeping is not only done on time — but done accurately.
Timekeeping has vexed law office administrators and managing partners for years. Given the daily pressure on attorneys to deliver for clients and the minimum monthly billing requirement, timekeeping can be stressful for everyone involved.
Lawyers love to work in the flow, but manual timekeeping takes them out of it. “It’s very challenging for lawyers to do timekeeping in the moment. It’s a habit that it's really hard to build,” says Sarah Tetlow, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Firm Focus, a consulting firm that helps attorneys improve productivity.
The result is that many attorneys procrastinate on reporting their time, often waiting until the end of the week or month to recreate activities from calendar entries, emails, phone records and memory. It’s no secret that this is an error-prone process that ultimately results in inaccurate invoices and write-offs of line items that don’t meet client guidelines. That adds up to lost revenue and, in some cases, strained client relationships.
The standard advice for timekeeping is to do it contemporaneously with the work. “If you wait until the end of the day to recreate your time, studies suggest that you shortchange yourself by around 15% to 20%,” says John Remsen Jr., President of The Remsen Group. “If you wait until the end of the week, you’re further shortchanging yourself by as much as 25% to 30%. If you wait much longer than that, you’re starting to write fiction.”
Reconstructing time from memory can also affect work descriptions. If the narrative doesn’t meet firm standards or the client’s requirements, line items can be rejected, which further erodes revenue. For example, some clients don’t like to pay for anything they deem clerical. So descriptions need to focus on the legal value delivered.
“One reason attorneys procrastinate on timekeeping is that crafting work descriptions takes time. You can speed up the process using shortcut keys to automate the input of language that has already been approved by firm leadership and has been paid by the client.”
What attorneys often miss in the reconstruction process are fractions of hours, what Tetlow calls the “point-ones” and “point-twos,” which, in her experience, account for at least 5% of lost billable time.
If your firm bills by the hour, time is money. “The billable hour remains king,” says Remsen. Still, firms that bill flat fees can also benefit from timekeeping. “If you’re working on a flat fee, it’s good to shadow-bill the work at your standard hourly rates to see if it’s profitable or not. The fewer hours you spend on earning that flat fee, the more profitable you are,” he says. Flat-fee work encourages process efficiency, and shadow billing can reveal whether process improvements are actually flowing to the bottom line.
BEST PRACTICE FOR TIMERS
Ideally, firms would like to capture time accurately without the stress. But one reason attorneys procrastinate on timekeeping is that crafting work descriptions takes time. You can speed up the process by using shortcut keys to automate the input of language that has already been approved by firm leadership and has been paid by the client. Many case management applications have the ability to assign blocks of text to “F” keys (function keys). Tetlow says these foolproof descriptions alleviate the stress and time of crafting an original narrative for each time entry.
If your case management software doesn’t support shortcut keys, Tetlow suggests creating a template of foolproof narratives in a Word document. Either way, you save time and ensure that narratives conform to firm and client expectations.
Most law offices have moved beyond pen and paper for time tracking and now use timers included in many case management systems, or they use external timer apps that integrate with their software. “The absolute best practice for timers is, when you start something, click the timer, put in the matter number and add a memory-jogger for the description. In that moment, you don't need the full description,” says Tetlow.
“Attorneys who are disciplined with time tracking can … recapture that lost 5% of time that regularly slips through the cracks — about seven hours per month based on a 140-hour-per-month billing requirement.”
For example, typing “MSJ research” reminds you that you’re doing research for a summary judgment motion. Then, when it comes time to submit the timesheet, you can finish the narrative with shortcut keys or your template of foolproof language.
The downside of timers is the manual labor of opening the timekeeping software, clicking the timer on, entering the matter number and memory-jogger, and remembering to turn the timer off. There’s still a human in the loop, and errors still happen.
AUTOMATE WITH PASSIVE TIME TRACKING
If you’ve been waiting for technology to make timekeeping easier, more accurate and stress-free, it’s here today. Many firm management systems — such as Coyote Analytics, MyCase and Smokeball — include passive or “intuitive” time tracking capabilities.
Passive time tracking tracks your work as you do it, which improves accuracy by capturing nearly 100% of billable time. In general, passive time tracking works in the background to automatically associate time worked with the correct matter. Invoices are automatically created and available for editing before sending off to the client.
Capturing time passively can also improve productivity by revealing common inefficiencies in firm processes. For example, attorneys can see where they’re losing time on unrelated and nonbillable tasks that slow down the flow of work.
Several law office time and billing applications include passive time tracking, including Sage Timeslips and Time by Ping Inc., which uses artificial intelligence to help associate work with clients and matters. Another similar app, called Faster Time, integrates with Clio. These are just a few examples.
Each of these timekeeping apps have different features and functionality, and some are more automated than others. Many offer mobile apps that track time spent on calls and email while on the road. Most integrate with Microsoft 365 and others include broader integrations with Google Workspace and Adobe products.
ROI THAT’S OMG
Improving accuracy in time tracking can add up to big gains in revenue. Attorneys who are disciplined with time tracking can recover the point-ones and point-twos and recapture that lost 5% of time that regularly slips through the cracks — about seven hours per month based on a 140-hour-per-month billing requirement.
For those who reconstruct time at the end of the week or month, passive time tracking can recapture the lost 15% to 30% of otherwise unreported and unbilled time — up to 40 hours per month.
In addition, firms should experience fewer write-offs.
Tracking time is not a favorite task for anyone, but it’s a vital aspect of legal life. Fortunately, with the help of technology — and/or the building of consistent habits — timekeeping struggles and stresses can be minimized, opening up more opportunities to better serve clients.
Time is your most valuable resource, and as a busy legal professional, distractions and interruptions impede your ability to have a productive day. Join Sarah Tetlow, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Firm Focus, at our 2022 Annual Conference & Expo — May 15–18 in Kissimmee, Florida — as she helps you get a handle on the seemingly small distractions that add up to steal your work time. Her session is called, Stop Welcoming Distractions! Productivity Strategies to Help Set Boundaries and Manage Expectations. To register, visit ALAannualconf.org.
About the Author
Mark Brewer is a freelance writer who helps decision makers understand technology, trends and ideas to make them more effective in their work.