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Most law firms are compensated for hourly fees generated on behalf of clients. Thus, in this era of reduced profits and increased client vigilance, it becomes crucial to carefully track every iota of time (and cost) spent on behalf of a client. Attorneys used to keep their time on slips of paper — one slip for each work transaction. At the end of the month, all the slips from the various timekeepers were manually collated by matter and date, then typed into a bill. The secretary or billing clerk had to read unique individual handwriting and client/matter designations. Billing on a monthly basis could easily be 60 to 90 days after the fact, sometimes to the wrong client, and often with missing time. With the advent of computers, the task became much easier. New technology allowed a firm to enter the various slips into its system, sort them into matters, and generate the billings. Still, problems and errors were rampant. Attorneys still had to fill out slips for data entry clerk to enter. Lack of matter search routines meant attorneys had to remember matter codes. The same transposition and “unaccounted for” time problems existed. When PC-based systems came into vogue, they helped eliminate the attorney-to-clerk link. Younger associates, who were more familiar with the technology, could perform cut-and-paste operations and change descriptive text. While not all systems provided good search tools, those that did contributed to substantial reductions in incorrectly billed matters. Still, by and large, accurate and on-the-spot time accounting did not occur. LOSING TRACK One of the most common ways to lose track of billable fees is by trying to remember at the end of the month exactly which matters were being worked and how much time was spent. Timekeepers attempting to reconstruct several weeks in detail after the fact invariably lose much; consequently, those hours that were actually earned never reach the client. The underlying reason for this is that keeping track of time is counterproductive to the job legal professionals are hired to perform, namely, practice law. When billable fees are not reported, the billing process and cash flow in the firm is greatly impaired. Law firms have resorted to various schemes to alleviate this condition, including assigning special-purpose expeditors to monitor the time-tracking process and withholding paychecks for non-complying timekeepers. Truth be told, it is a tedious task for most. A major hindrance to a successful time accounting application — like most applications — is when there is not a good fit between the way the user functions and the way the software functions. System and programming staff have the specialized knowledge needed to design a system, but these same people do not have the knowledge of how an attorney really works over the course of a day. Instead of being a useful tool, the system actually can be an obstacle. Although the technology has vastly improved over earlier days, the application capabilities can vary widely from one system to another. A well-designed time and cost application should mesh seamlessly with the way a timekeeper works, not the other way around. This is often easier said than done. The following capabilities are mandatory for adoption as a successful time, cost and billing system. View in interactive “daily worksheet” format: All the entries being worked on during a particular day should be displayed to the timekeeper in full view, much like a spreadsheet. Most systems display one transaction at a time; not a very complete picture of what work is being performed during the day. An attorney is most always working on several matters at once. Often, a single matter is worked several times in a day, as with multiple telephone conversations. The ability to view this work in one place, and add transaction detail to an existing transaction is not only sensible, but also easier to do and eliminates error. Search capability: It is easy to transpose letters or numbers in a matter ID. Being able to search for any word in a desired matter and description, and select that matter from a list, is much easier than keying in the hoped-for proper matter ID. It virtually eliminates the chance of billing time to the wrong client. Descriptive text: Legal professionals are in the business of law, not typing. Until voice-activated systems greatly improve, the ability of the timekeeper to easily compose and enter descriptive text strongly enhances the success of using the system. Macro-driven text, using a few keystrokes to put long strings of predefined text into place, is very valuable to a timekeeper entering his or her own time transactions. Use and reuse of macro-driven text allows a timekeeper to compose a lengthy description without a great deal of typing. Timing: By using a timer, the attorney is working in “real time” as opposed to trying to remember the time spent on work. It is even better if each transaction has individual time-in and time-out capability. Duplication capability: Many types of law practice consist of the same basic work distributed to several matters. A good system should provide the ability to use a previous transaction, including descriptive text, as a template, thereby eliminating the extra effort of retyping the transaction. Audit trails: A time and cost system is only as good as its perceived ability to generate accurate and trusted information. Many firms measure their timekeepers’ performance (and compensation) partially on fees and billings generated. To that end, the system should provide a comprehensive trail of the date and time the transaction was entered, and by whom. Deleted transactions should not be allowed, but available as an audit trail. There should be protections in the system for viewing and/or changing another timekeeper’s entries. A good system would set up authorization lists indicating just who is allowed to change certain other staff members’ information. Interactive: It is incredible that some software systems still employ the old-fashioned “batch” concept of capturing information. All the transactions for a particular period are accumulated in a batch, which involves staff overhead spent in editing, holding and releasing. It slows down the billing process and inhibits the firm from knowing its exact situation in terms of work-in-process and billing status. When a system is interactive, all transactions are immediately available for viewing, billing and management reporting. Ease of use: This is the most important feature. The best way to get people to utilize a time and cost capture application is to make it easy to use. This is not the same as making it simple — a good system should still have sophisticated capability, yet still be intuitive. The user should know exactly what to do. Flexibility: Once a transaction is entered, the user needs the ability to alter any or all of it. There should be utilities in place to globally transfer work dates, adjust billing rates by date range and other such necessary tasks as required. THE FUTURE The time and cost entry system should be an extension of the user’s own makeup. Because of the technological advances being made, this should become even more easy to use. Voicemail: This is the Holy Grail of efficient time entry. Just speak into a microphone and have the system generate the information automatically. Unfortunately, this ideal still is not ready for prime time. To be sure, there have been advancements in the technology, particularly by companies such as Dragon, IBM and In Cube. However, the best that can be accomplished thus far has been in the area of simple commands, such as “Save This,” “Delete This,” and “New Item.” The ability to actually compose work descriptions by voice has yet to be successful. Moreover, there is a danger in the voice system transposing and misinterpreting crucial information. Working from an out-of-office location: Previously, this involved sending the firm a disk copy of those remote time and cost entries transactions, which was then interfaced with the time capture application. Today, this transaction file set can be sent via e-mail to the firm. The newest methods involve using a combination wireless phone/personal data assistant (PDA) configurations. Using an application on the PDA (such as the Palm OS or Microsoft Xbox), the out-of-office attorney can track time for the proper matters, set timers on or off and transmit the information seamlessly to the firm’s central system. This is the biggest step yet in insuring that time tracking is utilized in real time to the fullest, with virtually zero lost billable hours. Application servers: A user, via the Internet or a hosting system (such as Citrix server) can enter time tracking information from any location. All that is required is an Internet connection, which has become increasingly available in hotels, airports, computer specialty shops, kiosks and cellular phones. There have been many advances in time, cost and billing systems. The more attuned the firm is with making the time capture task easier, the greater the opportunity of maximizing its performance in profit and responsiveness. Peter Riesberg is the president of AdvantageLaw Inc., a leading provider of legal accounting and management software.

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