Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
A while ago I wrote a blog about time recording. Specifically, how I had never had training on it, didn’t know anyone who had, still found it unnatural after 15 years, and found it hard to meet my targets. Of course, what I also seem to say a lot is that if you are meeting your fees target it probably doesn’t matter, but not meeting any target doesn’t feel good.
In the first of a few blogs to assist junior lawyers, stuck at home wondering who to ask for help, I set out below what I have learned over the years. Because I have always met my fees target (except that one time it was doubled part way through the year- *eye roll*) so I can’t be doing it all wrong.
What I am about to say won’t apply to everyone in all areas of law. It might contravene your time recording policy, if you have one, and they are commercial points rather than technical ones, but at least some of them should be helpful to you.
As a teenager I inputted timesheets at a firm of accountants and there was one chap out on audit so every day he just recorded 7.5 hours as working for that particular client. On the other hand we have to account for each six minutes of our day, in my case working on any number of my hundred or so active files. Six minute units pass so quickly you can miss them. Something I have never got into the habit of is starting a clock before starting a piece of work- I don’t think I could keep up with the number of times I would have to stop it for interruptions. But if you can get into the habit of this early on in your career, it is really worth it. You will be much more able to keep track of those units.
It is easier in some departments, and with certain technology, to time record than it is in others. For example, I had colleagues working in personal injury back about 10 years ago who would record nine hours in seven most days. The IT system was completely on their side and their work lended itself to being 'processed'. Therefore, it is not always possible to compare your performance to a friend’s when it comes to time recording. Don’t worry about it.
I have got into a bad habit of assessing my day when I get in the office - checking through emails and post - before I do my real work. Sometimes this can take an hour or more and I rarely capture that time. There are other 'dead' points in the day too - like amending documents and signing or amending post. Not only am I actively trying to improve myself and capture this time, it may also be a good idea to round up rather than down when recording the time in the first place. For example, when you spend time reading a document that has been emailed to you, try to remember to add on the time you spent glancing over it at 8am.
Alternatively, consider changing the way you work to concentrate on just one thing at a time. Try to stop people from interrupting you. It is much easier on the conscience to record an hour’s time on the preparation of a document if you aren’t trying to remember how many quick emails you have responded to during that hour too.
It will probably be your firm’s policy that all time should be recorded, even if you think you won’t be able to bill it when the time comes. This is really tough, especially when you are newly qualified. You will no doubt worry that you spent an hour and a half worrying about where the words 'absolutely' and 'free of tax' should go in a legacy clause (NB - it doesn’t matter where!) If you are anything like me, you will then be hauled over the coals if you do eventually have to write off that time. My next bad habit (another one, I know, but at least I don’t bite my dirty toenails like DALC2), therefore, has been to record the time that I think I can bill. This also makes billing a lot quicker- I just bill the time I have recorded. But those people who write the time recording policies are right - the more time you record, the more time you will bill. So do record the time, and if your bosses then query the amount of time you are writing off, remind them that they can’t have it both ways.
My time recording target is something like 5 hours 12 minutes a day. I meet a challenging fees target each year at a reasonable hourly rate. But to do so I only need to record (and recover) about 3 hours 48 minutes a day. Recovery rates are a subject for another day but my point is that you don’t have to record ten hours a day to be a profitable fee earner- or even five.
Delegate whenever possible, especially non-chargeable work. I’m not saying don’t make the tea, but don’t do it all the time. Don’t stand at the photocopier if you have a secretary twiddling their thumbs, and - this is an important one and definitely a subject all of its own - try not to take too many calls from crazy new clients who, it will no doubt turn out after 25 minutes, really need a different type of lawyer/benefits adviser/osteopath.
It is worth saying again: if in doubt, record the time. Don’t forget that you are in business to make a profit. Say, after reading this, you are able to record (and bill) two extra units a day - that could be two letters received that you didn’t feel took up too much of your energy, or two telephone calls with estate agents you couldn’t be bothered to record - if you are full time with an hourly rate of £200, and have four weeks of annual leave, this equates to an extra £9,600 in fees a year. And that is how you get a pay rise.
There are a number of issues relating to profitability that we don’t talk about enough - pricing, promotions and pay rises, fees estimates and how a firm makes a profit to name a few. I think one of the reasons we are not encouraged to talk about them is that the mystique around making a profit suits those taking home the profit.
When I was 16 I worked in a sports shop. If we helped a customer, we had to mark the clothes label with our employee code which would then be entered in the till, and we would be given stats each day of how many sales we had assisted with. I worked really hard but the stats never seemed to reflect this. It is only in recent years that I have thought back and decided that the other staff members must have been working the system somehow because they certainly weren’t working harder than me.
Working the system wouldn’t have affected the overall sales figures but it would with time recording. I wonder if managing partners think it is better for us not to have training on time recording from, say, a costs draftsman because we will suddenly know what we shouldn’t be charging for. I think the opposite - we are a bunch of self-critical perfectionists who are more likely to round down than round up because we want to look efficient. If we were reminded of the cost of our secretaries, our archive team, our receptionists and marketing people, our postage and printing, our PII and our CPD, all of which has to be paid from our hourly rate, we might feel better about getting those units recorded.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article