One London practice has reportedly locked fee-earners out of their computers for poor timekeeping. But partners will be driven away if firms use more stick than carrot.

Why do we care about timesheets? If you ask enough lawyers, you are sure to get the correct answer.

Law firms sell time and they need timesheets to record their costs of sales. But that doesn’t quite explain why law firm partners are under daily attack, by management, for failing to record at least seven (or in some cases many more) hours every day.

This is fundamentally wrong for two reasons. First off, these pressures are being put on partners and second, punitive measures do much more harm than good.

Partners have never been so highly skilled, nor under so much pressure. They run the firm, the team, the client relationships and fee-earn. It’s an impressive juggling act, and the lucky few might even manage a bit of a social life too. 

This latest attack on partners only places them under further under the cosh. Instead, what partners need is the support of their firm to win quality work that fits with the firm and its ethos. 'Fit' is a broad concept, but it includes resourcing and profitability. Winning this work renders the timesheet largely obsolete for partners, though of course more junior lawyers will also need to record their time, so the cost of their salaries (one of the highest overheads in any firm) can be allocated internally.

There are essentially two ways to influence behaviour: carrot and stick, incentive and compulsion, rewards-based remuneration and very public attack.

What’s wrong with making it directly in a partner’s interest to generate profit for a firm?

Why, whenever there is a problem, do law firm management reach out for the big stick? 

It doesn’t work even for junior lawyers, working fixed hours doing 'routine' legal work. So to apply it to business owners and people with whom management are supposed to be in a cohesive partnership, who undertake very complex tasks and where the firm and the clients depend that partner going the extra mile makes no sense.

How many partners are walking away from big firms over unreasonable management behaviour and billing targets? How many of those are taking exceptional clients and even colleagues with them? The number of CVs landing in my inbox at least gives me a good idea.

William Robins is chief operating officer at Keystone Law