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The Art of Getting Paid

How to Master the Daily Task of Entering your Time

There are three crucial components to keeping track of your time on a daily basis.

By Frederick Hertz  |  July 27, 2016
Art: Accounting and Documenting Payments

Olaf Speier/Shutterstock

It may seem ludicrously routine to experienced attorneys, but keeping track of your time on a daily basis is not such an easy task. Fundamentally it involves three sets of tasks:

  • creating the taxonomy of record-keeping,
  • documenting your work during the course of the day, and
  • entering your time in your billing system.

Consider what’s involved in each of the three components of the job.

Creating Your System

Every client needs a “name” that you can use for your system. I discourage lawyers from assigning numbers to clients, simply because they are too hard to remember; if you need to have a client number, then you should also create a client nickname. The best system I learned early on is to take the first three letters of the client’s last name, followed by the first letter of their first name, so every client has a four-letter code that is easy to remember. Occasionally you will run into a duplicate situation where you need to vary the formula, but that won’t happen too often. The benefit of this system is that you can easily jot down the client name on your timesheet, and remember it for future reference.  If there are multiple matters for a single client, you can number them separately.

You also want to be thinking about what categories of work activity you regularly engage in, so you can create the right list of abbreviated entries. Most billing programs allow you to create shorthands (i.e. tc = telephone call with client, rd = review documents), and you want to go over the list of things you do for clients to be sure you have put together the best list of recurring tasks. You can always enter in specific tasks on your timesheets, but having a short list of the most frequent ones will help streamline your record-keeping.

Lastly, you need to articulate your philosophy of detail levels for your billing records. Generally you don’t want to include any confidential information in your billing, in case you ever have to provide copies of bills to the other side in a case.  On the other hand, simply saying “reply to emails” may not be sufficient to inform the client of what they are being asked to pay for. I tend to use simple two or three word phrases (e.g. telephone call re settlement issues, or meeting regarding trial strategy), which provide enough information to let the client know what I’m doing, without disclosing too much private detail.

Documenting Your Time

However sophisticated your billing program is, I am a strong advocate of using pencil and paper to record your time on a daily basis. Maybe it’s because I started practicing in an era when that was the only choice—a system that relied on a bookkeeping staff to create the bills from my pile of paper timesheets—but I still think it offers enormous value. It allows you to keep track of time using a pad of paper timesheets on your desk, without having to go in and out of other computer programs each hour. It also guarantees that you have a paper record of your time, should your computer system ever fail you. You can keep track of time even when you are out of your office, and you can easily look at your timesheet throughout the day as you work away on other matters. It also allows you to make notes informally as needed, and revise the amount of time as you return to another matter later in the day.

In my early years I used the tear-off small sheet form of time slips, so they could be torn off and sorted by the client’s name for easy inputting into the billing system at the end of a week or month. The system we used created a carbon copy of the key information (client name, date and amount of time), as a ledger record back-up document, while the main information with the detailed description of the work was only retained on the original tear-off slip. For the past twenty years I’ve used a simpler method: a photocopied page with lines that have space for the date, client name, amount of time, and description of the work.

My method is remarkably simple. At the beginning of each day I list all clients I am scheduled to work for that day. Then, whenever a new matter arises, I add that name to the list of clients on my paper timesheet. Whenever I work on a task, I enter that task to the line for that client, and throughout the day I enter the amount of time, simply erasing the first entry if I return to do more work for the client. Whenever possible, I review the timesheet before lunch to see if I’ve forgotten any task or if I’ve misstated the amount of time it took—all the while reflecting on how much work I did that morning and comparing it to what I’ve listed, to see if I’m out of whack in my recording. The same goes for the end of the day. Except for those days when I’m working out of the office, my goal is to never leave the office until I’ve reviewed my time entries for that day and entered my time.

Entering Your Time

I encourage every lawyer to enter their own time into their billing system, for several reasons. Most likely you will spot errors or add some detail when you do so, and it’s the best opportunity to evaluate what is more properly non-billable time. It also will increase your facility with the billing program, which will surely come in handy later on. At a certain level of your office complexity this might be unrealistic, but it should be your standard practice whenever possible.

It should also be your standard practice to enter your time on a daily basis, before you shut down your computer and head home for the day. This will greatly reduce the likelihood of errors, and allows for the editing and refinement that you need to be doing. If you are simply too rushed at the end of the day—or are working out of the office that afternoon—then make a point of entering yesterday’s time first thing the next morning. Entering your time each day also develops your discipline and keeps you focused on the finances of your business, and avoids the slippery slope of letting days or even weeks go by without entering your time into your system. You never want to face a situation where your client calls you and asks you what their bill is currently, and not be able to give them a prompt reply. This is especially true where a client’s invoice is mounting up more quickly than anticipated, since you will need to have ready access to the billing records on a regular basis in order to alert your client as to what is happening in their matter.

Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in Oakland, has managed his practice for more than 25 years.

The art of getting paid

"The Art of Getting Paid" is a one-year series of blog posts that provides a comprehensive training to lawyers on how to get paid.

We welcome your questions and comments – and of course, your suggestions on how to master this insufficiently respected aspect of practicing law.

The Need for Honest Record Keeping of Bills

Which Billing System Do You Use?

View the full series »

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