It's no secret: entering our billable time can be loathsome. The tedium of tracking everything we do in six-minute increments is enough to drive us nuts.
But as we know, most attorneys need to meet a minimum billable hour requirement to stay in good-standing at their firm or keep them on track to advance--which means practicing accurate timekeeping techniques is a must .
The importance of capturing time consistently can’t be understated. According to practice management consultant Ann Guinn, you fail to capture roughly:
That’s potentially dozens--and maybe even hundreds--of billable hours being left on the table simply by not having accurate timekeeping routines in place.
So if we’re bad at timekeeping, how do we get on track?
The answer: form a habit.
First, some basics. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that there are three parts to a habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
CUES triggers your brain to automatically take an action and are generally broken into five categories: a location, a time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action. For example, a cue could be the smell of coffee every morning at 5:30am that gets you out of bed.
The ROUTINE is the behavior that you want to create or reinforce—or stop, if you’re trying to change a bad habit. In our coffee example, the routine would be getting out of bed and pouring yourself a cup of joe while you’re still half asleep.
The REWARD is, of course, the reason your brain performs this habit in the first place–it’s the “enjoyment” aspect of the habit that leaves the sensation of satisfaction and positive reinforcement that incentivizes repetition of the routine. For example, the caffeine rush you get from your first cup of coffee.
This "neurological loop” is at the core of every habit, and each of these parts is integral to the habit-forming process.
How do we apply this concept to timekeeping?
FIRST, identify your timekeeping routine (the routine is Part 2 of the loop, but Duhigg suggests we start here). When you enter your time, how are you going to do it? Some of us enter it directly into our timekeeping software, others jot it down and enter it later, and others write it down or voice record it for staff to enter. Regardless of how you do it, focus on doing it the same way every time, period. Engaging in a consistent routine will help you overcome the inefficient practice of entering times in different ways at different times of the day.
SECOND, figure out the cue (Part 1 of the loop) that tells you it’s time to perform your timekeeping routine. I’ve seen people adopt three helpful cues that increase accuracy:
THIRD, identify the reward. Now you're probably thinking: what possible rewards could you connect with entering your time? Here are a few ideas:
Here's the main take-way: If you’re having a problem with timekeeping, invest a few minutes to identify the parts of your habit loop and build a routine that will set you up for success.
One of my favorite quotes related to planning and time management is one by Abraham Lincoln that you may have heard before:
This quote rings true because it’s a reminder that we can better manage our time and execute our work if we become disciplined in the way we plan and prepare.
How often are we quick to run headfirst into a project without taking the time up front to think about what the project entails, or be strategic about how we approach it? There’s any number of reasons why we don’t spend the time planning: we don’t find it valuable, we feel the urge to just “start” right away, or we don’t think we actually have the time to plan.
If you want to improve the way you manage your practice, here's what you need to do first: Adjust your mindset when it comes to planning. Before you rush into your next project, be intentional about spending time up front to map it out. Acknowledge that even a little bit of planning up front can save you massive amounts of time later.
Here are a five aspects of planning to focus on:
THE TAKEAWAY: be intentional about sharpening your axe before you get to work.
Learning how to delegate is a huge part of effective practice management for law firm associates. But in order to delegate effectively you must first define the job descriptions of everyone you work with at the firm.
The reason behind this is pretty simple: If you don’t understand with precision who is responsible for what, then how can you ever get clear on what constitutes delegable work?
And it’s not enough to define those roles simply by outlining a job description. You have to get a clear understanding of the specific tasks your secretary, paralegal, case manager, and colleagues are responsible for, and make sure that these roles are clear to anyone working on your team. They can change depending on the type and size of project and team members involved.
When you have a crystal clear sense of what’s in your job description and what’s in the job description of those you work with, then delegating becomes systematic–-and you eliminate miscommunications or time spent doing tasks that you are not responsible for.
The most difficult part of delegating is maintaining discipline. Sometimes we see an easy task in front of us–-something that's clearly in the job description of someone else at the firm–but we decide instead to spend 25 minutes to "just take care of it ourselves," thinking that it will make life easier.
But consider this: there are at least three major problems with this kind of thinking, and they’re all preventing you from being more efficient with your time:
To recap: understand the job descriptions of others, be disciplined in delegating, and put to good use the two hours of additional time you just created in your week.
How often do you find that your progress on a case has stalled or that you're in danger of missing a deadline because your client won't respond? Every attorney has experienced the frustration of waiting on clients to collect documents, approve a draft, or track down the information you need to move a matter forward.
While some of this is a client issue, often times this problem can be traced directly back to an attorney communication issue--one that can be prevented.
Consider building some of the following into your calendar and your communications with clients:
Explain What’s In It For Them, and why the delay is preventing you from moving forward with the divorce, estate plan, lawsuit, or insurance recovery that's keeping them up at night.
Not only will these practices be helpful in moving your case forward, they'll help set expectations and improve your client's experience.
Looming deadlines and juggling dozens of open cases are a constant source of stress for associates.
If you’re looking for a simple way to decrease your stress level and increase your practice management efficiency, start by creating a master case or matter list that includes every single active matter or task you’re managing.
Here's the idea: create a single place (maybe an excel spreadsheet, or a tool on your firm's practice management software) that lists the key information, case name/number, deadlines, major filing dates, etc., for each matter you handle. Once the list is created, review it regularly. Print it out and carry it with you to every case or staff meeting. Put it in a prominent spot on your desk. Make reviewing it one of the first 5 things you do every morning (BEFORE you crack open your email), and one of the last 5 things you do before you leave for the day.
Here's why a Master List is a must have tool for every associate: