Why Time Entry is So Hard and What Law Firms Can Do About It

legal software

Why Time Entry is So Hard and What Law Firms Can Do About It

by Marie Burgess, Director, Product Management

A little while ago I had a chance to listen to some law firm partners discuss time tracking. As such, I had the opportunity to ask an important question: What is it about entering time that is so hard?

They said the answer stems from the fact lawyers work on multiple matters often for multiple clients on any given day. It’s time-consuming and challenging to reconstruct what they worked on at the end of a long day. Therefore, they delay the task until they have time to focus and think it over carefully.

This may well compound the problem because many of us have a hard time remembering what we did yesterday, let alone what we did last week, or even several weeks ago. It’s not a stretch to say our recollections become less precise with time, which means time entry only gets harder when the task is postponed.

Delays Usually Mean Underbilling, Not Overbilling

Accuracy in time and billing is important to lawyers out of a sense of ethics, a duty to be good financial stewards of client budgets, and also the increased scrutiny as a result of proliferating billing guidelines. Most lawyers don’t want to overcharge a client, but they also don’t want to underbill either.

This is where reconstructing time entries typically takes a twist. We’ve generally found lawyers are pretty good at remembering what they did over larger blocks of time – meetings, conference calls, or substantive work on documents – but what they forget is all the little things.

These little things are the impromptu client emails or the 15-minute phone calls that are sprinkled throughout the day. If a lawyer is providing good advice, even in brief interactions, it’s worth documenting and charging fair value.

4 Common Ways Lawyers Reconstruct Billable Time

Some law firms have implemented policies aimed at fostering lawyers to get their time in sooner. Common policies can vary in specifics – from implementing weekly or end of month deadlines – to publishing time entry statistics across the firm – to fines leveled at partners including those affecting draws.

While such policies can help, we’ve also heard of partners willing to pay fines rather than enter billable time on a deadline. However, when lawyers absolutely can’t wait any longer, there are several ways they go about jogging their memories including:

  • Calendars. Lawyers live and die by the calendar, so reviewing it for meetings, conference calls, and court dates are a way to recall what was previously accomplished.
  • Email. For many lawyers the calendar and email go together, so reviewing deleted and sent items offers clues as to which matters were worked and when. The fact that emails are archived with a time and date stamp is useful for piecing a day together.
  • Document management. Whether it’s a simple folder system on a desktop or a sophisticated firm-wide software, lawyers can sort and filter work documents by creation or modification date as well as matter association. This can provide enough of a glimpse to remind a lawyer of their workflow on previous date.
  • Phone logs. When looking for an outline of past activities, many modern phone systems have logging features. For example, enterprise landline systems often provide a means for users to scroll through a log of calls made by date. Most mobile devices also track the duration of calls.

While all these things can help, it’s still a bit like putting together a puzzle – with many missing pieces.

Culture, Convenience, and Technology for Improving Time Entry

There’s a cultural component at play here too. While some of the more agile law firms have cracked the code, others maintain status quo thinking where late time entry is just accepted as a fact of life.

No technology tool will solve this problem in and of itself, but in combination with culture, technology can lend an element of convenience that makes it a little easier. The upside for the law firm is well documented – if a firm wants to make an immediate impact on margins, get your time entered.

Here are some ways technology can truly enable time-entry:

1) The legal software stopwatch

The stopwatch is a tried and true means to track time. Most modern legal software systems provide this time-tracking feature. For example, if a lawyer opens a case file, there’s usually a digital stopwatch they can click to begin tracking the time spent on a task.

The catch here is you must use it. Those who use stopwatches are truly committed to time entry – and a glance at their desktop will often reveal several in use at any given moment. However, stopwatches don’t necessarily work for everyone. Lawyers all have a different way of working based off of their personal preferences, area of law and number of matters worked. For most lawyers, flexibility is key and being tied down to stopwatch isn’t practical.

2) Mobile time entry

Mobility cannot be a feature that is bolted on later in development; rather it’s a foundational element of any modern legal software system. This means lawyers must have the same level of functionality across mobile devices as they have on a desktop – including time entry.

If a lawyer prefers to enter their billable time on an iPad on a Sunday evening from home, then so be it, provided it fits within the policies and security procedures of the firm. In our observation, there is growing population of lawyers that rely on mobile time-entry.

3) Sophisticated data mining and automation

Remember the sifting through calendars, emails and phone logs that some lawyers use to reconstruct time? There are technology tools that will do this automatically and provide lawyers with a list of activities related to system interactions.

This list serves as a chronological outline. While lawyers still need to go through and mark activities as billable time entries, it’s much easier and faster than sorting through hundreds or even thousands of sent emails.   Additional capabilities will highlight activities that are already associated with billable matters, further reducing the time reconstruction.

Depending on a law firm’s preference, these tools can provide a level of detail that improves the accuracy of billing. For example, the list can provide a lawyer with a record of how long a document was open on their screen – or even how long they spent in a legal research tool or another online resource.

Time-entry is essential to the financial health of a firm, but it’s also liable to remain one of the most unenjoyable administrative, legal tasks. Savvy firms use the three levers of people, policy, and technology, to emphasize the importance of timely entry while also making the process a little easier.

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