Reflections on 8 practical tips for time tracking lawyers

Bas Roodbeen
18 July 2019
Lawyers thrive when their efforts are focussed on their clients and case management. Manual time tracking, on the other hand, is an aspect of legal practice that quickly falls to the wayside on stressful days.

Hans Schuurman, one of the leading legal management experts in the Netherlands, formulated eight best practice points for lawyers and law firms with regard to time tracking. This post will explore the reflections of two professionals working in different capacities within the legal industry on Schuurman’s tips.

Nick Schils is a software developer who started his time tracking software company TIQ Time in 2016. He was inspired to start the company when he noticed the lawyers around him struggling to keep up with their time tracking. Realising technology could be the key to simplifying the process of time tracking, while reducing frustration and capturing lost hours, Nick began to develop TIQ Time. Today, his software helps thousands of lawyers across five countries.

Iris Cuijpers is a legal intern at Holla Lawyers and has recently began to work with billable hours. Her firm offers a supportive working environment and encourages her to prioritise becoming a good lawyer before worrying about hourly targets.

Here are their reflections on Schuurman’s 8 time tracking tips:

1. Keep time tracking simple by limiting the number of hourly codes. In practice, 90% of all hours are registered to just ten codes. The description accompanying the code is where your clients find value.

Schils: ‘Because the units of time used by legal professionals are so small, providing detailed descriptions of the work has become an industry standard. We challenge lawyers to provide even more detail. If you simply state ‘correspondence’ on your invoice, your client will likely want to know more details about the correspondence. Supplying details about the type of correspondence (‘composing email’, for instance), the recipient and the subject or content allow the client to find value in that work.

Providing this level of detail may take more time initially, but it saves time in the long run. Clients are less likely to reject bills that have this level of detail, so it saves time for those responsible for the corrections during the pre-billing process. We recommend that you have clear guidelines for time tracking entries and where possible, use software that can automate this for you.’

Cuijpers: ‘In the legal industry, you must provide detailed insight into how you spend your time. As an intern, I try to avoid incomplete or unclear descriptions. There are specific codes for reviewing precedents, researching relevant literature and so on. I always try to provide detailed and clear descriptions of my work so the client can benefit from transparent invoices.’

2. Get ahead on your billable hours before your vacation. You won’t meet your billable targets during your holiday and you don’t want to fall too far behind. The same is true at the end of the year before the Christmas holidays.

Cuijpers: ‘This is something that every lawyer should have in the back of their mind. You also need to account for any unexpected days off, such as if you have to stay home sick with the flu.’

3. Enter your hours now. By Friday, you won’t remember what you did today in enough detail to report it in 6-minute intervals.

Cuijpers: ‘It was something I had to get used to at first, but tracking my hours has become part of my routine. I check whether I have tracked my hours and add in any additional details before I go home. On the very odd occasion that I don’t enter my time right away, it’s the first thing I do the next day.’

Schils: ‘Making time tracking a daily habit prevents guesstimating. Someone who spends eight or nine hours at the office before tracking their time by heart usually ends up with just six or seven billable hours. This happens because lawyers often switch between tasks – responding quickly to an email between phone calls or taking a client phone call during lunch, for instance. These tasks are either forgotten about completely or the time spent on the task is underestimated.’

4. For interns: enter your time accurately and don’t exclude hours on the basis that it might have taken someone else less time. Excluding these hours may reflect poorly on you at your performance evaluation.

Cuijpers: ‘Achieving hourly targets as a legal intern at the beginning of my legal career should not be a determining factor in my overall performance evaluation. I have been working for almost a year now and try to maintain a consistent number of billable hours. Excluding hours is not something that an intern should do. All invoices are passed onto the file manager, who approves the number of hours billed. Adjustments can be made at this point – not at the time they are entered.’

5. For file managers: time tracking can give you insight into time spent versus time quoted. If your budgets don’t reflect your effort, learn from this before your next pitch.

Schils: ‘Time tracking isn’t just useful for your finance department at the end of the monthly billing cycle – it also provides important insights into productivity. This information can be used to optimise your firm’s output. It can help you determine what your lawyers spend their time doing and where your inefficiencies lie. Essentially, this information can inform decisions about investment in legal tech or whether you’d benefit from outsourcing particular tasks.’

6. Non-billable hours have value as well. Employees are paid 100% of their salary even though an average of 70% of their time is billable. It’s worth assessing the other 30%.

Cuijpers: ‘Complete time tracking is the policy at our firm. I do non-billable work at the office as well, like writing content for our newsletter and preparing case law meetings. I track that time too. This also applies to administrative tasks, like posting on our Instagram or LinkedIn. While these tasks don’t take a lot of time, it’s still important to track these hours.’

7. For partners: you should make time to discuss hourly reports with your fee earners and provide tips. That way, fee earners understand why they are tracking their hours (and how they can improve).

Cuijpers: ‘The lawyers overseeing my work give me an overview of my hourly reports each month. If something stands out, we will discuss it in more detail. I can also request reports myself using the firm’s practice management software.’

8. Input all hours worked.

Schils: ‘What we often see with young trainees is that they are afraid of entering too many hours. It’s not uncommon for some of them to work for three hours to then only input a single hour. This means any future estimates are going to be made on inaccurate data. For interns, this means extra work pressure: the same job will have to be done in an hour next time when it takes far more time to complete in reality.

You also lose out on the valuable insights I mentioned earlier. This makes pricing estimates more difficult for the firm. It’s always better to track all your hours so you have a realistic idea of how long tasks take.’

Cuijpers: ‘I have noticed some of my fellow interns are uncomfortable with inputting all of their hours and often exclude some of the hours they worked. I always try to enter the actual hours I’ve worked though.

After I have entered my hours, the lawyers overseeing my work will look at the number of hours and may decide that some of my hours are not billable. By inputting my actual hours, the lawyers that oversee my work gain insight into my productivity and the way I spend my day. An added advantage of this is that my progress is obvious to my mentors. So these insights are beneficial for both me as a trainee and the lawyers mentoring and training me.’

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