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Those Timesheets, Those Hated Timesheets: Are You Still Using Them?

By Jim Calloway

A common complaint among lawyers is the painful necessity of filling out timesheets so that the clients can be accurately billed. On its face, this is a simple exercise that should be a part of the daily routine and should be happily done for the direct rewards it provides. (You don’t bill, you don’t get paid.) The reality is that it is sometimes hard to maintain this discipline when a client is holding on line 1, another is here for their appointment, and you have a deadline to file a pleading this afternoon.

Oklahoma City attorney Mark Robertson and I have spent time discussing alternatives to completing timesheets. We co-authored two books on alternative billing including Winning Alternatives to the Billable  Hour – Strategies That Work, Third Edition (2008) and in 2014, Mark published Alternative Fees for Business Lawyers and Their Clients. Sadly, while others disagree, Mark and I believe alternative fee agreements do not necessarily do away with the necessity for recording time or tasks on a daily basis. Hours invested by a lawyer working on a client file may not always directly correlate with value to the client, but they do directly correlate with cost of production for the law firm. That makes it hard to know how well a different fee structure is working without any accounting for time invested.

But I hope by now most lawyers reading this are not filling out timesheets by pen and ink on paper regardless of the fee structure arrangement that they may have with clients.

It is hard to adjust to changes in technology and standard business practices. It may be hard to determine between a great new idea that deserves adoption and something that sounds good but may not work well in practice.

But there’s one observation that I can make today with a great deal of certainty. A lawyer entering their time by using pen and ink on a paper timesheet is employing an inefficient practice that should no longer be used. You need to enter your time digitally. This means you.

I am willing to concede that there are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands, of high-powered, high-billing non-typing lawyers across the country for whom this does not hold true. For these lawyers, the traditional model of quickly jotting down their time on a paper timesheet by hand never to be considered again may make sense. After all, you don’t want to keep the attorney general on hold a second longer than necessary.

But one big difference between that lawyer and the other 99 percent of the profession is that lawyer has a support system where it may really be true that timesheets leave and never trouble him again.

But for other lawyers, those timesheet entries do reappear, sometimes several times. A billing clerk may tentatively tap on your door asking you to decipher some scribbling that seems to say you were riding a horse and want to bill the client for that. But usually they don’t bother you with such queries. You will just have a pre-bill or a draft of a bill delivered to you for your proofreading pleasure where some misinterpretations of your handwriting are now transcribed and poised to be sent to the client. Most of these are not as entertaining as the idea you might have ridden a horse for the client’s benefit. So you make your edits and send them off. But unless your edits are very brief, the pre-bills will return to you for a final proofreading.

In my view, it is critical to review the bills before they are sent to your client. These are an important client communication that the client will certainly read. Any billing error, even a typographical one, may reflect on the quality of your legal work, and if the error appears to reflect an overcharge, this will likely result in an awkward conversation with the client.

Making handwritten billing entries very quickly may seem more efficient, but not only are you paying someone to transcribe them, you may end up losing more of your non-billable time in the proofing and revision process that you could possibly have saved by a handwritten entry as opposed to a digital one.

Lawyers who do not type well may consider speech recognition tools. But most billing entries are brief enough that there is not much difference in the data entry time for a two-fingered typist.

And if you believe for whatever reason that there is absolutely no way you or your firm can shift away from handwritten timesheets, at least do the following: 1) take a deep breath before you write each timesheet entry, 2) print the words carefully rather than using cursive and 3) when you have completed a timesheet, carefully proof it (just like you would any other important document) before placing it in your outbox.

WHERE DOES THE TIME GO?

Where does one make a time entry, if not on paper?

For the majority of lawyers, the answer is either directly in the billing software or in your practice management software service. There are also apps that capture your time entries for later transfer to your billing system.

Practice management software (including the cloud-based systems) is the best solution for most lawyers because you cannot only capture your time, but you can also record and access all client information including attorney notes and documents in the same place. The ability to organize and store all of this information, including those “time-sheet” entries, has gone from convenient to critical for today’s law firm operations.

But in today’s busy environment, it is not enough to be able to enter your time by keyboard on the office computer. Today’s lawyers need to be able to record their time and access their client data at any time through their smart phones and other mobile devices.

Our “Practice Management Shootout at the OK Bar” at the 2015 OBA Solo & Small Firm Conference will showcase great products to fulfill all of these needs. See the sidebar and conference website at www.okbar.net/solo2015 for more information. The five practice management packages showcased in our Shootout are MyCase, Firm Central from Thomson Reuters, Clio, RocketMatter and PracticeMaster/Tabs3.

All of these products allow you to directly enter your time while at your workstation and hopefully avoid much of the proofing and reproofing that often accompanies handwritten time entries.

REMOTE TIME ENTRY

But what about remote access? After all, as the marketing material for these types of products always emphasizes, just capturing a few time entries per month that would have otherwise been lost can soon add up to enough money to cover the expense of the service.
 
Let’s see how our Shootout participants handle remote time entry.

LexisNexis Firm Manager® is a cloud-based service, and as with all cloud-based services, that means a lawyer can log in from a home computer or laptop as easily as they can log in at the home office.  When mobile, the attorney uses T&E capture on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.  There is a built-in timer to record you billable time on the go.

MyCase is also a cloud-based service. My Case provides free mobile app options for iOS and Android devices. But it also provides a tool for your clients. Your clients can also install the apps at no charge to access information that you choose to provide them.

Firm Central from Thomson Reuters is also a cloud-based service. As a part of Thomson Reuters, they tout their service’s ability to integrate with other products and services from the company, including legal research. Their Time and Billing service is powered by eBillity and has Outlook integration. It is compatible with iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smartphones. There is an additional charge for Time and Billing.

Clio is also cloud-based. It has downloadable iOS and Android apps for mobile access so you can enter your time from a mobile device. All billing functions are included as a part of the service. It also has integration with your OBA-supplied Fastcase service. One can open a new time record while doing research, selecting among your clients and matters from within Fastcase.

RocketMatter is cloud-based. RocketMatter has both iPhone and Droid phone mobile editions (aka apps) at no additional charge. They are quite proud of their recently released iPad edition, which is specially designed for the iPad to offer full access to your data using the iPad, also at no additional charge.

PracticeMaster and Tabs3 are a pair of traditionally installed software products from Software Technology Inc. and not cloud-based. Tabs3 does the time capture and billing functions while PracticeMaster is the practice management piece. Many, but not all, law firms purchase both. Tabs3 Connect is their mobile tool, and it works with all major mobile platforms. You must have the Platinum version of the software to use Tabs3 Connect, and there is a small monthly charge if you only use Tabs3 and not PM. (Since it is installed on your machines, any remote access service can also be used.)

Don’t forget that there is much more that all of these products do. We are just focusing on time capture and recording for this review.

There are other practice management software and service vendors. They feature various methods of capturing time.

There are also different types of stand-alone time keeping and time capture utilities.

THE APP WE REALLY WANT WOULD JUST FILL OUT OUR TIMESHEETS FOR US

Chrometa is one tool that not only helps you record your time but helps you out when you fail to record it. Attorney Isaac Warren of Choctaw is a fan.

“Chrometa automatically tracks your time by logging the current window you are using,” Mr. Warren stated in a post on OBA-NET. “For instance, if I spend 12 minutes typing an email memo to my client and then use Alt+Tab to switch to a Word document and spend 35 minutes to finalize an agreement, Chrometa logs the 12 minutes on the email and tags the entry with the subject line of the email. Then it will log the time revising the agreement by tagging the file name of the agreement.”

These “automatic entries” are then synchronized with the Chrometa website where one can log in to clean up or remove the entries before exporting them to Clio, Rocket Matter or Quickbooks. He also noted that the Android app for Chrometa will log phone calls, but the iPhone app does not and is much more limited. Mr. Warren uses the Mac version of the software, but there is a PC-based version as well.

There are many stand-alone time keeping apps for mobile devices. North Carolina lawyer Brian Focht recently updated his blog post “6 Excellent Timekeeping Apps for Lawyers” on his Cyber Advocate blog. (Note: With the updates, he now has more than six apps.) The products he profiled are:

    1)    iTimeKeep by Bellfield Systems

    2)   Time Master + Billing by On-Core Software

    3)    Bill4Time by Broadway Billing Systems

    4)    Hours Tracker by cribasoft LLC

    5)    Timewerks Pro by Sorth LLC

    6)    Gleeo Time Tracker by Gridvision Engineering GmbH

    7)    OfficeTime by OfficeTime Software

    8)    TimeClock Pro by Spotlight Six Software

You are directed to his post to see all of the details on these apps like features, price and whether they are for iOS, Android or both.

CONCLUSION

Even though the task sounds simple on its face, recording one’s time each day task by task, six minutes by six minutes, is a tedious task many lawyers are not fond of doing. It is a necessity if you are charging clients an hourly rate. Certainly an app where you can quickly enter the time on your phone when you leave the courthouse at the end of the day instead of remembering to do it the next morning at the office makes a lot of sense. A lawyer who spends an hour talking with a client at home on the weekend or evening will benefit, too − either by recording the time spent via the app or being able to log into their practice management system from home.

The lawyer of a few decades ago would have not understood the concept of entering the time on a mobile phone, much less being able to pull up client documents on the mobile phone. This is just one of the many ways the practice of law (and the world) is being changed by technological innovations. Spending less time dealing with the mechanics of billing is a good thing. So keep that in mind if your firm needs to upgrade the way it captures billable time.

Shoot Out!

Our “Practice Management Shoot Out at the OK Bar” program will feature five great products for solo and small firm lawyers (and for larger firms, too). Have you been delaying the purchase of a practice management tool even though you know you need it? Are you concerned some things don’t seem to work smoothly on the tool you do use? Are you ready to switch solutions?

You will never have a better chance to compare shop than at our 2015 OBA Solo & Small Firm Conference. See the demonstrations and then visit the vendor’s booths afterwards with your questions. The conference is June 18-20, 2015, at the Hard Rock Casino Resort. See the conference website at www.okbar.net/solo2015.

Our Shoot Out participants are:

Firm Manager (LexisNexis)

MyCase

• Firm Central (Thomson Reuters)

• Clio

• RocketMatter

• PracticeMaster/Tabs3

(Note: This article has been revised slightly from its original publication in the Oklahoma Bar Journal to add an additional shootout participant.)

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- April 18, 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 11