There was something deliciously
ironic about me trying some new time recording software this week. It's many
years after I left life as a private practice lawyer but I can still remember
that huge sense of freedom at escaping the tyranny of the timesheet. The
feeling of being able to work on what mattered most and be judged on results
rather than be measured purely on how much time I had spent working on client
matters was incredibly liberating.
The IT director proudly unveiled the
firm's latest time recording application - robust, wireless and mobile, it
represented the future of the firm's management information system
Subsequent conversations with other
in-house lawyers validated that I was not alone in those feelings.
After I moved in-house a huge number
of conversations with peers included the words"..... and no-more timesheets",
with knowing glances being directed at any private practice lawyer in the room.
But within a few years, I was
voluntarily tracking my time as an in-house lawyer. Admittedly at the time it
was a pretty crude mechanism - I tracked data in hour long blocks in an
Excel spreadsheet over a period of months, but it did the job.
I'd been inspired to do this after
reading Drucker's book "The Effective Executive" (well worth a
read) in which he makes the point that an individual can't maximise their
effectiveness unless they know where they spend their time.
In practice what it meant was that I
could have much more informed discussions with my major stakeholders around how
best to allocate my time to achieve organisational objectives. It allowed
sensible and transparent choices to be made around different priorities (if I
support this deal and this HR project, the position paper on IPR ownership will
need to wait until next quarter, or we'll need to resource things differently)
which I believe kept me more aligned with the company and led to some very
On the other side of the fence, I've
written a fair bit around what I believe the problems with charging by the hour
are, not least the
impact this has on the firms as well as how it affects the client
relationship. My mind often turns to a partner I know who runs a management
consultancy business, who almost immediately on taking over the department
abolished time-based billing. Profitability increased along with client
satisfaction and employee retention.
However, to my mind there's a
critical distinction between tracking time and charging purely based upon time.
The most obvious point is that as knowledge workers, typically the cost of
labour is one of the largest components of the cost of providing a legal
service. Without knowing what the cost is, running a profitable firm (file,
project,team, department etc) is nigh on impossible.
It's also important to understand
cost in other areas too. Law firms often talk about the challenges of
calculating return on investment for marketing events such as seminars and
events, but when looking at how business development budgets are prioritised
and spent, much of the focus is just on the hard cash being spent on venues and
collateral, rather than the cost of the people involved in preparing and
administering the event.
For example, having a top partner at
a City law firm prepare for, attend and follow-up at a seminar overseas which
takes him or her out of the office for a couple of days is a significant cost
which can be accurately measured but is often overlooked.
The other non-chargeable area
that it's important to track is product development. As law firms begin to
think more about efficiency and identify some more standard, repeatable
services (some firms have been doing this for years) which are nicely packaged
for clients at a set price, they usually "get" the idea that the service
becomes increasingly profitable as volume of sales increase. The documents
needed for the service are all ready and the people involved get quicker and
more skilled at providing the service as they get more experienced. But often
any upfront development cost in creating the service (market research, pilot
projects, legal research, designing template documents) is lost because it is
recorded under a general non-chargeable code. This makes comparing the return
on investment for the project challenging and without an idea of these sort of
development costs for previous legal products, makes forecasting and budgeting
for future product development more difficult.
So back to my current quest. I was
inspired to revisit this after reading tweet from a contact saying he was
trying a web-based package called timerescue. This was a million miles away
from the clunky, manual time recording systems I'd used in law firms (when I
first started practice it was a paper timesheet pad) - running in the
background and capturing application use, automatically learning behaviour and
applying tags. All in all, a fairly sophisticated tool, with some nice web-based
analytics to use to understand the data.
However, while I'm a big user of
many cloud services, I wasn't entirely comfortable with sending some of this
data (document names, email titles) to a company I knew little about, so after
a very short trial, I binned it. I then installed a similar piece of software
locally, called Manictime.
I liked this a lot, but it led to stability issues, so now I'm back to a more
traditional system called Grindstone2.
The application is, of course,
irrelevant other than it needs to be quick and easy to use, and provide the
data in a format that's useful.
The key point I wanted to make is
that while the market may be (thankfully) steadily moving away from
time-based billing, there is much to be said for the discipline of recording
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