In her book Minding Your Own Business: The Solo and Small Firm Lawyer’s Guide to a Profitable Practice (ABA, 2010), Ann Guinn writes, “Capturing your time as you move through the day is the only way to know that you are being fair to your clients and fair to yourself with your billings.” Why guess how much time you have spent, or reconstruct time by looking back at your calendar or file notes, when you can accurately track your time as you work? For most lawyers, the usual timekeeping setting is in an office, at a desk, with a computer. But what about your timekeeping when you are away from the office? Today, thanks to a broad range of affordable apps and online services, it is possible for lawyers to continue good timekeeping habits—capturing their time electronically while they are working on a given task—from virtually anywhere in the world.
Methods for Remote Time Entry: Good, Better, Best
For purposes of this discussion, “remote time entry” refers to time entry by a means other than directly into your billing software, whether you are physically in the office or not. Leading remote time entry apps and services include Centerbase (legal.centerbase.com), CosmoLex (cosmolex.com), iSlips (brainfreezesoftware.com), iTimeKeep (bellefield.com), Sage Timeslips eCenter (sagetimeslipsecenter.com), and Tabs3 Connect (tabs3.com). How do you choose among the various services? Below are three categories of remote time entry, ranked from merely adequate to ideal:
Good: Remote connection to office computer. Remote access to your office computer or server is a popular means to work away from the office, but if the objective is time entry only, you’re limiting yourself. A remote connection has the same limitations as being in the office: You have to log in to the remote server, navigate your office desktop, log in to the billing system, and navigate to time entry. This is too many steps for entering a few time records.
Better: Mobile site. In her February 23, 2017, article for Above the Law, Nicole Black writes, “in 2017, according to the ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 94 percent of lawyers surveyed report that they ‘regularly or occasionally use a mobile device for law-related tasks at home’” (http://tinyurl.com/ydyo5wq2). Timekeeping is a task suitable for a mobile device. So, use a product that has a mobile option that will run on your smartphone. The Sage Timeslips eCenter provides a website for use on desktop computers and a mobile website with a similar look formatted for smartphones. The latter, however, is a website, not an app.
Best: App with mobile site option. The key to optimal remote entry is using a smartphone via an app, not via connection to a website. Advantages of apps include:
- at least partial functionality when disconnected from the Internet;
- greater focus on the task at hand;
- tie-in to other smartphone app technologies (e.g., iSlips also uses your smartphone’s GPS to calculate mileage and plug it into expense slips, and it also lets you dial and e-mail from the client list; iTimeKeep can push notifications to users who haven’t met their time entry goals); and
- option to use voice commands to complete the description by using your smartphone’s dictation tool.
Some products provide both an app and a website for an optimal small-screen and large-screen experience. Their desktop website typically has the same look as the app for easy transition between the two.
As noted above, one of the primary advantages of app-based service is the ability to enter time when you don’t have an Internet connection. When I take my iPhone to the basement, my signal strength goes to one bar. No problem—I can still track my time with an app like iSlips because it is a disconnected solution. It has its own database and works with iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. It doesn’t require an Internet connection until you are ready to send your slips to the main database. It is designed to work with Timeslips, PerfectLaw, and QuickBooks. Users send their data from the device to the main database via e-mail or by WiFi when back in the office. With iSlips for QuickBooks you can even create estimates and invoices and enter payments.
Impact on Billing Process
Another viable option to consider when choosing a remote time entry service is the time cost to your billing staff. What does it take to set up the connection between your remote time entry solution and your billing system? Does your billing procedure include an “import remote time” step? If so, is the import electronic or manual? How long does it take? Here is a sampling of remote time entry methods ranked by impact on your billing process:
High impact. Entering time into a spreadsheet, word processor, or on a paper (handwritten) form has the highest impact at billing time. These methods may be easy for the timekeeper but will slow down the billing process. Import and transcription can add hours or days to the time it takes to bill your clients. Transcription from handwritten records is particularly time-consuming and susceptible to errors as you are relying on your billing staff to read your handwriting. If you must use one of these methods, work with a consultant to build a reliable, automated import procedure for these records.
Moderate impact. This category consists of apps or websites designed for use with your billing system that require a utility to send what you’ve entered on your device or in the cloud into your billing system. Examples of this category are Sage Timeslips eCenter and iSlips. Also in this category are applications linked to a case management system (CMS) such as PracticeMaster and Tabs3, or companion products to a CMS; these applications require a step to bring time entries from the CMS into billing. This category also includes time capture utilities that examine what has happened at your computer and help you convert this activity into time entries. Finally, integrations that send data from Outlook into your billing system are also in this category.
Low impact. Apps or websites designed for use with your billing system that send your entries directly to your billing system fall into this category. Examples of products in this category are Tabs3 Connect and most versions of iTimeKeep. There is no extra work at billing time.
Take whatever method you use in the office with you when you’re working outside. Sam Glover of Lawyerist.com recommends, “However you decide to track your time, pick a method and stick to it” (http://tinyurl.com/y732leyn). Web-based solutions such as Tabs3 Connect and iTimeKeep provide the same interface on the computer desktop as when using them on your smartphone. App solutions such as iSlips will work in both venues provided you’re comfortable with an iPhone or iPad as your in-office timekeeping device. Glover says there is nothing wrong with paper, but (as discussed above) I recommend that if you are keeping time on paper, you should consider moving to an electronic method to eliminate the need for transferring the paper notes into your billing system for billing.
Match your remote option with the central software it was intended to work with. This seems obvious, but we often encounter firms using software for time entry that is not designed to work with the firm’s central billing software. The result is manipulation (for import) or complete re-entry of time to prepare it for billing. Using a compatible remote solution will also give you an interface very similar to that of your desktop software so that you can comfortably move between the desktop at the office and remote entry. Compatibility of remote time entry hardware (iPhones, Android devices, etc.) should also be considered.
Using the brief list of remote timekeeping systems presented above, here is a quick overview of which remote systems work with which software and hardware:
- Centerbase cloud-based case management offers a mobile app that works on iPhones and is included with the subscription cost.
- CosmoLex cloud-based billing and accounting case management comes with an app that includes timers and time-and-expense entry forms for iPhone and Android devices.
- iSlips works with PerfectLaw, QuickBooks, and Timeslips.
- iTimeKeep works with Actionstep, PCLaw, PracticeMaster, Time Matters, Timeslips, and several other billing systems.
- Sage Timeslips eCenter is a website where you can record time and expense entries. The eCenter also has a mobile access site for time entry on the iPhone, Android, and other mobile devices.
- Tabs3 Connect sends time and expense entries to Tabs3 billing. It also includes a matter billing summary and client and matter information.
Here’s how to implement remote time entry and keep your clients’ data secure.
- Use an app. Computerworld reports that an app from a trusted provider offers better security than a web browser (http://tinyurl.com/y7oss4dv).
- Use the security features built into your device, and adopt other recommended security measures. For details, see the May/June 2012 Law Practice Management article “Selecting, Managing, and Securing SmartPhones” by Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek, (http://tinyurl.com/ycjyx74s).
- Understand where your data resides and how it is secured. Remote time entry solutions may store data in the cloud, on your device, directly to a server in your office, or some combination of these.
- Make your own backup. Be responsible for your time by making a backup of your remote entries. This is especially important for remote systems that require transfer or synchronization with the main database. Solutions such as the Sage Timeslips eCenter allow you to create a report of all of your time entries. This report is your source for recovery in the event the synchronization fails.
- Cancel access for users no longer at the firm.
Consider Remote Time Entry Inside Your Office, Too
It might seem counterintuitive, but there actually are advantages to using remote time entry even while you are in your office.
GOMBS (Get Out of My Billing System). Those whose only use for the firm’s billing system is to enter their time will be interrupted from time to time as the administrator needs to perform functions requiring exclusive access.
Built-in security. Most solutions dedicated exclusively to time entry inherently block functions such as viewing other timekeepers’ time, billing rates, receivables, and creating bills and reports. Otherwise these have to be blocked through meticulous configuration of security settings.
Even if your remote system is used only outside the office, make sure your entire office staff uses a single remote time entry method. Get all your users on board. This approach will save you time, money, and headaches at billing time. Are you worried because you are a Mac user in an office with a Windows-based billing system? No problem. Some remote time entry products such as iTimeKeep and Tabs3 Connect will work with web browsers, including Safari. iTimeKeep also works with the Apple Watch.
Software publishers have made exciting advances in remote timekeeping. Take advantage of them. Find and use the best remote option for your firm. This means you should test-drive first. Make no assumptions about what the app will or will not do. The products differ on how data gets from the remote device to the main database, availability of the data once sent, ability to enter time for other users, and other aspects of the user experience. Costs also vary significantly.