Using a clever system that lets you record time against your client matter is one thing, using it properly is quite another.

I have consulted with small and large firms around the country (and worked as a lawyer for 25 years before) and have seen spectacular differences in time recording. The software is often similar, but the outcome is worlds apart depending on how it’s used.

I worked with a FilePro user last July who worked out a time and fee budget for a young lawyer. The lawyer worked hard all year, has been a ‘no maintenance’ person and the clients appreciate his work.

After 7 months of the fiscal year they were about $140,000 ahead of their budget. Their target was to record 6 client hours (and 2 non-billable hours) each day. They’ll receive a handsome bonus and their employer will be delighted to hand it over – a win-win.

I’ve also seen firms where lawyers don’t record time until the end of the week (or later) and therefore almost always underestimate the time they’ve spent on a matter.

So how does your firm compare?

Common time recording complaints

Before we look at ways to optimise your firm’s timekeeping, it’s worthwhile to identify the most common issues firms face. These are the most common complaints I hear from principals:

  • Insufficient time is being recorded by a particular solicitor having regard to the length of time spent at work
  • The detail of what is recorded is poor leading to a greater likelihood of it being written of
  • A lack of knowledge in how the software works (or could be used)
  • An indifference to the concept of recording time

Implementing the plan

So where do you start and what should you do? In reality this is a detailed issue but in my experience the solution needs to contain these basic ingredients.

1. You start at the top

Without sounding obvious, you want to start with the boss. The Principal or Partners need to discuss it and ultimately reach an agreement. This is fundamental.

This discussion should be objective and free of strong opinions so you can establish a time recording strategy and guide the firm through its execution.

2. What is time recording in your firm?

This simple question confuses many people. To me, time recording enables your firm to measure individual performance against pre agreed targets. It also allows the firm to accurately identify the time spent on services provided by the firm for which fees will be sought.

It’s very important to understand that just because time is recorded against a matter does not automatically mean the client will be charged. Of course, if it’s never recorded management will never know. However if it has been recorded management can then review the work and time spent on each task.

3. Introducing it to the staff

You should then explain your strategy to staff and demystify some of the reasons they might guess it’s being introduced (such as to ‘rip off’ the client etc.)

Start with the senior lawyers and work down. Remember, you aren’t getting buy-in, just getting their acceptance of an already decided policy.

4. Discuss the ‘shades of grey’

Getting staff together to discuss time recording makes them want to call in sick. This is because most people think they know how to record time – and that is the essence of the problem.

Every person applies their views about what should and shouldn’t be recorded. The boss doesn’t know about these views because they’re never discussed. Because of this, the firm often won’t be attaining time recording levels the boss requires because it’s never been talked about

There has to be discussion about about what everyone’s time targets should be or how to record many repeatable events that happen every day.

5. Re-engage with the staff

It’s impossible and impractical to discuss all the facets of time recording in the introductory meeting. You should instead have follow-up meetings to further discuss and answer any time recording questions.

This is also important for firms new to time recording because it will easier for staff to discuss issues having dealt with them in real circumstances.

6. Ongoing Coaching

Not all staff will be good at time recording – in fact, some will be awful. You will have people who hit their targets straight away and some who will need more help. The point is you need to instil the idea that you can’t not try!

Don’t forget to lift the marketing effort concurrently

Properly recording time enables you to more quickly turn the wheels of your firm. Therefore you need to be able to attract more work to maintain that velocity.

Ensure you have a smart marketing plan that helps deliver that work. It doesn’t have to be advertising – it’s both cheaper and more effective to tap into your database of existing clients and contacts.

Summary

To improve your firm’s time recording, discuss your firm’s position and develop a detailed policy that is signed off by all partners.

Agree on what the consequences are if the policy isn’t followed and then introduce it to staff. Use your resources to ensure they’re properly trained and the strategy is correctly executed.

Ensure this time investment is maximised by concurrently running smart marketing measures.

Then monitor everything so you can do your follow up training and coach those who need it (plus happily pay bonuses to those who deserve it).

Peter Heazlewood was a practicing lawyer for 25 years and for many years, Managing Partner. He is now co-founder of Lift Legal Pty Ltd, Australia’s largest online marketing company for law firms. Email Peter at peter@liftlegal.com.au to discover more.