Killing Time or Billing Time?

apple device black and white business computer
Photo by Michaela on Pexels.com

Recently a partner at a firm in Boston was suspended for overbilling. While by all accounts, she was an excellent lawyer and her clients were happy with her work, the methods she used to create her time entries were “inadequate, careless, rushed and error-prone” according to the decision by Justice Frank Gaziano of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The attorney did not keep contemporaneous track of her time in the billing system but instead tried to recreate records based on notes. This should serve as a cautionary tale and a New Year’s resolution to track your time more effectively. But how?

A study published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that people overestimate how much they worked by 5-50% when asked how much they worked the previous week. It is crucial to track your time as close to “as it happens” as possible. According to an article in the Lawyerist, Viewabill, a service that allows clients to see what their lawyers bill in real time, says that waiting until the end of the month to record your time means you are probably overbilling your clients by about 23%. Conversely, it is often posited by legal tech companies and management gurus that lawyers lose money when they don’t efficiently track time. Either way, your billing may not accurately reflect reality.

For lawyers who charge flat fees, alternative fees, or subscription fees and may not track time, there are a few reasons to consider recording it. First, if a bill is disputed sometimes the only measurement a court will consider is a time log. Second, successful fixed fees have a basis, and that basis is often time spent. Tracking time for flat fee matters will help you determine whether you are effectively pricing your work. Time is also a measure of efficiency. It can help you decide whether or not you are spending too much time on tasks that can be automated or outsourced.

First, Focus

One barrier to effectively tracking time is the number of tasks an attorney may be attempting to complete at any given moment. You may be responding to an email when the phone rings. You set aside the email and discuss a matter with your client. Once your call is complete, you go back to drafting the email only to have your calendar alert you that it is time to go to a deposition. You save the email in draft, re-read the interrogatories, and hop in the car. When you are finally back in the office, after responding to a few more calls and emails, you settle back to finish the email.

With so many distractions, it is incredibly difficult to effectively and contemporaneously track time on any task. One way to reduce the madness is to review your daily calendar and then set up your day using the Pomodoro method to help you focus on one task at a time. Let the calls go to voicemail, have a receptionist take a message, or ask a paralegal to respond. Try to schedule your time in blocks and anticipate what your day will bring. Obviously, unexpected and unscheduled tasks will still plague you, but you can at least attempt to take some control. Time management is a process that you have to work on, do not be discouraged when you have to reset and try again.

Use What You Have

Almost every practice management application has some way to track time, often with a stopwatch system that lets you identify the client and start/stop a clock for billable work. Integrations with applications you regularly use, such as email or word processing, let you start and stop the timer within the app itself. It can add some context because the system knows that you are in a specific application working on an identified client/ matter. Explore what tools are at your disposal, how they work, and what integrations they may offer. Just using what you already have may significantly improve your efforts to contemporaneously record your time.

On the Go

While it may be easier to track time when you are sitting at your desk, capturing time when you are mobile has some challenges. Many of the practice management/time & billing applications have apps. You can download the app and use the stopwatch on your smartphone, and it will synchronize back to your billing system. If you do not use a cloud-based practice management application or want to capture time spent on phone calls or texts here are but a few options:

  • iTimeKeep by Aderant (formerly Bellefield) connects to your legal accounting software and allows you to enter your time from any device as long as it has access to the Internet. If you are running an on-premise legal billing system, have a group of Mac users that need time entry, or just need mobile timekeeping, iTimeKeep could be an option. You can also dictate time entries. The Premium version includes FocusTime to block distracting websites, set time limits, schedule FocusTime for deep work, and automatically put your phone and Slack in Do Not Disturb mode when you are focused.
  • Tikit CarpeDiem is another mobile-friendly app that lets you capture time via voice, handwriting recognition, or text entry. It integrates with some popular billing applications and uses “Intelligent Time” to interpret free form text or dictated notes and turn them into structure time entries.
  • TimeMiner integrates with RingCentral, Gmail, Outlook, and Clio and is available for Android and iOS. It is an app that you go back and fetch time spent on your phone when you email, text, or call someone. It does this by connecting with your phone VOIP service, like RingCentral, or linking to the contacts you specify. It does not mine your calls or texts. Time entries can be exported to Clio.
  • TimeTracker by eBility has a mobile time tracker app to bill for time and also expenses. Time entries integrate and synchronize with Clio and Thomson Reuters billing products. Time Tracker’s legal-specific features include ABA billing codes, LEDES and LSS invoicing format, a conflict checker, trust accounting, expense tracking, 4-click invoicing, and LSS realization reports. The product has add-ins for Outlook/Office365 to convert calendared events to time entries.

Automate Time Capture

Starting and stopping a stopwatch is tedious. Sometimes you forget. There are many applications on the market that promise to help by sitting in the background on your computer and capturing your activity so that you can review it and turn it into a billable record. Some of these products have been on the market for some time, others are new and leverage machine learning to attempt to match your activity to the client/matter through keyword recognition and tagging.

Most all these products have a free trial, so it is worth testing them to see if they can help you capture time more effectively. Some only work on your local computer, so you may need to take additional efforts to track activity on a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone. Also, consider whether the product integrates with the applications you use and your billing software.  A product that automatically tracks your activity but requires you to retype the entries to get the invoice out may not be saving you all that much time. However, many of these applications offer a Zapier, IFTTT, or Power Automate (f/k/a Microsoft Flow) connection, so even if there is not a direct integration with your billing application, you can leverage the automation tools to reduce retyping and data migration. If you don’t use a specific billing application, but rather use Excel and Word, then make sure that the time entries can be exported or saved as CSV.

Here is a sample of automated time capture tools:

  • Ping is so new there is no pricing listed or any way to sign up, but the premise is intriguing. It learns the way you work and automatically builds a timesheet.
  • Wisetime is free for limited use (2 unconnected users) or $30 per month for up to 10 members with unlimited tags and remote team connections. Based in Australia, Wisetime connects to Clio, or use Zapier to connect it to QuickBooks, PracticePanther, etc. with the paid plan. The application sits in the background and tracks activity on your machine. It auto tags case references that you can set up with keywords. You can then group multiple time entries for a matter and add a narrative description. You can also create teams, view dashboards and generate reports. There is an Outlook app for mobile.
  • Smokeball Practice Management has elegant built-in automated time tracking that tracks time spent in Smokeball, Outlook, and Word and associates it with the client and matter. It knows what matter you are working on and the time goes directly into Smokeball billing.
  • Memory Tracker by Timely is another app out of Australia. It tracks activities on your computer, in the browser, and in meetings, then groups it together for you. You can add project tags, and it will attempt to guess them over time based on the AI running in the background. They include an interesting legal case study on their website.
  • Fasterlaw Faster Time is available as part of their suite of products or as a stand-alone. It purports to automatically capture activity based on mouse movements, keyboard activity, and the apps you use. It works with Microsoft Office and your browser, and you can add other apps too. It saves and syncs directly with the Clio practice management application.
  • Chrometa helps track time on Macs and PC and integrates with web-based time and billing products like Clio, Cosmolex, PracticePanther, Rocket Matter, QuickBooks Online, Xero, and more. It also works with Slack, Gmail, Office 365, Outlook emails, and calendar events. It acts as your personal timekeeper by recording how long you are working in an application, explicitly noting what file or email you are working on, and creating a time entry for you.
  • RescueTime tracks exactly how you spend your time on your digital devices. Everything you do is automatically categorized so you can quickly see the time you spend on specific apps, websites, and projects and gauge your daily productivity. It offers iOS and Android apps and you can connect to other apps through Zapier and IFTTT. This product is not focused on legal, but instead focused on “where does my time go?” It integrates with the Google Calendar and the Outlook/Office 365 calendar.
  • Toggl reminds you to start a timer and detects idle time to help you if you forget to stop a timer. Toggle is available for mobile devices, installed on the desktop and has an extension for Chrome or Firefox. It integrates with Google products, but not Microsoft.

Conclusion

If you are not effectively recording your time, there are many ways to improve by using technology and proper time management techniques. It may help you from overbilling, underbilling, or underestimating how you spend your time. Ethics attorney Megan Zavieh points out that many ethics complaints start with a client who thinks the bill is too high and points out that the best defense is robust documentation. Examine your current time capture practices and resolve to make a few changes to improve accurate billing and make your life a little easier!