There is a really important debate taking place within the legal sector and we need to address it head on.
On the one hand, we have a series of time recording policies that have been written for the most part by finance teams to ensure the healthy operation and profitability of the law firm. Fee earners are forced to sign up to these when they join the firm.
Within these time policies are rules as to how frequently lawyers should record their time, in what units and how they should codify it.
Good timekeeping is essential to the financial wellbeing of a law firm but also to client satisfaction. Recording activities accurately allows us to manage the legal service delivery, analyse activities, make sure that we are giving the client the right service and can demonstrate how their work is progressing against the budget. This enables clients to make informed decisions about where we invest time on their account as well as put us in a better position to price future work accurately.
On the other hand, we have a series of mental health and personal well-being issues lingering around time policy compliance which are yet to be addressed completely within the sector.
Lawyers are stressed in part because they have billable hour targets and tight deadlines. The two combined lead to incredibly long working hours. Whereas the average finishing times a decade ago might well have been around about 8 or 9 in the evening, even at Magic Circle and white shoe firms, average times, as reported in Legal Cheek in 2022, at those firms are drifting nearer to midnight. Under pressure, exhausted, with a million things coming in their way time recording in line with the policy usually ends up being seen as a painful, unproductive task for lawyers – hence put off by many for as long as possible.
Like a domino effect, this leads to mental health concerns among the finance team and has similar effects on the clients, let alone some clear operational issues within the firm.
Delayed time recording means that the finance team have their necks on the line because bills are not going out on time. The longer the delay, the lower the recoverability rate of the bills become, which puts finance under direct pressure. It also prevents them from finding out early on if a client is a bad payer, hence risk to the firm. To combat this, they run around chasing fee earners for their time entry, which neither helps the case of preserving their mental health nor is easy to do with several professionals now working from home rather than the office.
For clients, this can lead to a bill-shock, which besides the stress factor on them could also damage their relationship with your firm long-term or make them move on to another firm. Even if a matter is not dealt with on a fixed fee basis, there are fixed expectations. Without a real-time insight into progress firms cannot accurately manage client expectations.
From the operational point of view, this prevents firms from ever getting to real-time reporting. In an era where every area of business is moving towards data-driven decision making, posh-guessing when it comes to financials is an expensive mistake.
With one problem triggering the next, the core of the issue needs to be addressed: making time recording in line with policies less painful.
Making time recording in line with policies easier
Now, technology alone is not a silver bullet which will solve this completely for you. But using it as a part of the strategy to take you to a more manageable place is certainly something that the right applications can do.
One element to this strategy is extending the power of your existing time recording application to automatically capture more activities with richer details. Even the market leading time recording software cannot accurately account for the activities done through collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
By taking the burden off lawyers’ shoulders of having to manually do this in a world where we rely on these applications every day, a significant number of tasks are eliminated. Allowing a technical solution to do the capturing also means higher accuracy. With lawyers accounting for time in 6-minute increments, from the results we have seen, uncaptured billable time can add up to as much as five entire days per month. Recording these also means lawyers can hit their targets quicker and without having to work late into the night. Complying becomes less painful.
Another piece to add to this strategy is using applications to retrain fee earners to good time recording behaviours. Allocating time becomes painful because the hours uncaptured build up. Accurately remembering what happened a week ago is hard and it is unsurprising that even the smartest minds struggle to do it. The key is to get to time recording as and when the activity happens or at the least by the end of the day.
Step one is having a reminder to do this when it should be done. It is much like when we set reminders to drink a glass of water during the day or health app notifications that tell you to go for a walk because you have been idle for too long. Not having to think about when something needs to be done, makes it easier to do. Some time recording applications are now able to send these reminders.
But there is a twist at this point to address. On average, 80% of people ignore such notifications in any life context, even if they are for their benefit. To build good habits there needs to be accountability at the start. Technology, designed to keep fee earners true to the policies they agreed to, can put all their applications on pause until they do the time recording when it is due.
It makes time recording the top priority when it needs to be to prevent unallocated time piling up and becoming a source of stress and anxiety. Once the commitment is completed, the work goes on as usual. As this cycle of activities get repeated, time recording turns into an accepted routine. Prompts become less or not at all needed because following firm policies becomes engraved in muscle memory.
Training, change management and the maintenance of a healthy and positive firm culture all play into creating behaviours that are good for the individual and serve the firm, but in 2022 we are in a privileged position where we are also able to use software to make necessary activities less daunting.
This article first appeared in TR Forefront Issue I 2022.