Last issue we discussed the importance of contemporaneous time entry and the potential impact it can have on firm billing, collections and profitability. Time should be entered daily and to facilitate this, law firms must create a time entry policy that is effective, efficient and flexible. This endeavor is a paradigm shift for most timekeepers in practice, but not in theory. Timekeepers understand that time must be entered, but it is easy to fall into bad habits with a myriad of excuses that delay time entry, thus unnecessarily losing potential billings. The key is to develop a time entry policy and initiate a “structured push” to enforce timekeeper accountability for maximum billable potential. The question for many is how?
It is helpful to understand the different timekeeping behaviors. Understanding the behaviors can identify timekeepers where additional resources may be required to facilitate compliance. Like many tasks in a law firm, time entry is a process, and the approach to improving the process is to compile the data needed to assist in facilitating the change. For our purposes, I have distilled the behaviors down to four general timekeeping categories.
The category is self-explanatory; these timekeepers are always ahead of the curve in getting their time entered contemporaneously. They utilize all the time and billing software enhancements, e.g., auto timers and mobile phone applications, and often enter their time as they work. They are up on the technology, enter their own time and release it daily. These timekeepers are very low maintenance, and their billable hours are often on the higher side from month to month. While this is no clear indicator of profitable work, it is a benchmark at the highest standard for time capture. Profitability is ascertained as the time is reviewed in the billing process, but in most cases, 90 percent or better is billed.
Pending Time Group
Generally, these timekeepers are very good at getting their time entered but sometimes struggle with keeping pace with contemporaneous time entry. They have the potential to slip into those bad habits of delayed time entry so your time entry policy must set a time entry deadline. Law firms have different timelines, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say all time for a given day must be entered by 5 p.m. the following day. If that is the policy, someone needs to monitor the time entry to make sure the time is not only entered but released so it can be posted. These timekeepers strive to be “A” students but sometimes need the extra push.
Shoot Yourself in the Foot Group
These are the timekeepers that you see in the office day and night who appear to be very busy. But, for whatever reason, they do not always capture all their time. This is usually seen among the junior attorneys and paralegals, but senior attorneys are not immune—they are equally represented in this group, but for different reasons. The senior attorneys just require more prompting, and they share membership rights with those in the Pending Time Group. They are well-intentioned but need that added push to get the time entered. These attorneys often appear to have lower billable hours, but it is simply a matter of finding ways to capture the time spent. Junior attorneys and paralegals are more inclined to edit their time, thus reducing their billable hour potential. There is often a concern that if they record too much time on an assigned task, the billing attorney will take issue, so rather than record the actual time worked to complete the task, they record fewer hours. This should be discouraged. These attorneys and paralegals need to let the billing attorney decide if the time should be billed. When self-editing, they voluntarily “shoot themselves in the foot” by not recording all the time worked. If they record the actual time and the billing attorney writes it off, then there is a mechanism in place to track the time entry and write off performance, providing the added benefit of being able to meet with junior attorneys and paralegals to review their time entry performance and provide resources to help them improve their time management. This can become a win-win if the junior attorneys, paralegals and the senior attorney/billing attorney/ partner take the time to review the performance and assist in getting them to “A” Student status.
To take it a step further, it is recommended that new attorney and paralegal orientation cover the areas of timekeeping and self-editing. In addition, periodic continuing education sessions on proper timekeeping should be conducted for all timekeepers in your firm. This training can be presented by a senior administrative person in billing or, better yet, a stellar senior attorney who can convey the different tricks of the trade on proper contemporaneous time entry.
Special Friends Group
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Special Friends Group that is made up of timekeepers who are missing several days of time on a regular basis. These timekeepers tend to ignore time entry reminders, and frequent follow-up is required. They are very high maintenance and tend to have very low billable hours and significant dollars lost in productivity. For that reason and others, these timekeepers are the real challenge, and the key to motivating these folks to join the cause is to develop initiatives to facilitate time entry. Some initiatives that have had varying levels of success include:
- Additional one-on-one training with firm trainers or a savvy time-entry attorney or paralegal (an assigned time buddy).
- Handwrite the time daily and give to the legal assistant (for attorneys).
- Dictate time the old-fashioned way, allowing the legal assistant to retrieve the data and enter the time daily. It sounds archaic, but it can work (for attorneys).
- Enter or dictate time into a mobile phone application tied to the firm’s time and billing system, which is an option that is becoming more popular.
There are many other initiatives to try, but the idea is to implement those that facilitate improved time entry while also supporting the firm’s goal to create a more innovative culture. This can often be an additional challenge to process improvement, but it opens the door to more innovative and productive approaches for improving time-entry processes. There is no protocol set in stone, but the opportunity exists to be more creative in approaching procedural changes that benefit the firm. Data about timekeeper behaviors/categories is very useful for directing change but is no substitute for a good dose of common sense and aligning with firm culture. With any change initiative, the solutions (i.e., behavior modifications) must align with firm culture and create a climate for improved time entry, which in turn will produce more billable time, increased billing and maximum collections. The journey will continue.