When lawyers leave private practice to take an in-house counsel or government position, they are often asked about the differences in their new roles. Many of them say they are pleased not to have to complete timesheets anymore – it is a relief not to have to look at the day in six-minute increments. As most of you know, I’ve long been a proponent of employing flat fees or task-based billing when possible, particularly when representing consumers. But hourly billing is still used for many types of representation.
Before we get to timesheets, let’s discuss artificial intelligence. Over the last several weeks, an AI drafting program called ChatGPT from OpenAI has been garnering a lot of attention. It offers a conversational interface, so you can have the AI create something for you without understanding anything about how it works. It accepts conversational input and then applies its massive data collection to complete the assignment. OBA Practice Management Advisor Julie Bays asked it to write a short story about law practice management software. The results were amusing and amazing; the story is included in this blog post. Other generative AI tools include DALL-E/Stable Diffusion for image creation and VALL-E for mimicking voice. VALL-E can apparently mimic any voice after hearing a short sample. The implications of that are concerning.
ChatGPT represents a significant step forward for innovation in applying data. But it is a step, not a destination. One lawyer posted on social media that a case cited by ChatGPT in a legal memo apparently did not exist. So this tool should be considered a tool for first drafts rather than final drafts at this point. Developments will continue.
This demonstrates the power of using data. If client information in our law firms only exists on paper, it cannot be a part of any automation – until someone enters the information into a computer.
For lawyers, one area of data use is related to automatic document assembly. Many law firms are dealing with how to better capture and use their data. In the early days of computers in law offices, we first reused data by the process of copying and pasting. You won’t misspell the client’s difficult name when you copy from a document with it correctly spelled. And once someone has properly designed a case style in a litigation matter, everyone will be copying and pasting the style into their pleadings rather than recreating it. But one can make errors using copy and paste.
There are two traditional ways to use automated document assembly. One is the interview method, where the document drafter responds to questions and those answers are used to complete the document. Another method is to have your form set up to import data from a client information database to assemble the document. We are moving closer to the day when the first drafts of many legal documents will be generated by combining client data from the client file with forms and clauses selected by the attorney. Even tools using the interview method ask if you want to save the answers to the questions so that when you get ready to create the next document on the same matter, you won’t have to reenter that data.
What does that have to do with timesheets and hourly billing? First, greater use of document assembly will save lawyers a great deal of time. But given the investment of upgrades, skill and programming invested to accomplish this result as well as the potential liability all lawyers assume to properly represent their clients, hourly billing may not be the best method to charge for those highly automated tasks.
Today, hourly billing is still the standard in many law firms. It is objective. Business clients are accustomed to it. In larger firms, it provides one objective measure of associate attorneys’ progress and value to the firm. Firms have the infrastructure in place to do hourly billing every month. So let’s examine making hourly billing more efficient.
The primary functions in legal billing are time capture, expense capture and invoicing. It has long been a “truism” of law practice management that lawyers who contemporaneously record their time spent on client matters make more money than those who do not. But is that actually true, or could it be related to other aspects of their behavior? Maybe lawyers who contemporaneously record their time are more disciplined? Of course, many successful contingency fee lawyers never or rarely keep time records. But what is certainly true is that any lawyer who has tried to reconstruct their timekeeping records after a busy week when they “didn’t have time” knows there is a significant likelihood they will omit to capture part of their time.
So the first simple step is to record time contemporaneously, and then at the end of the day check to make certain you have recorded your time before you leave work. It will just take a few moments. Certainly events will sometimes keep you from doing that. Then you either catch up on billing entries the next morning, or you can use a mobile app.
The second and most important step is to only do digital time capture. Time capture and invoicing are a primary feature of all practice management software solutions and often a primary motivation for subscribing to such a solution.
Handwritten billing sheets are a long-standing tradition in law firms. But in today’s world, this practice limits efficiency. As noted, handwritten billing sheets for time capture are not data but represent paper documents that must be processed to create useful data, i.e., billing entries to be included in an invoice. But this data-conversion process is hobbled by the fact that handwriting, particularly hurried handwriting of busy professionals like doctors and lawyers, can sometimes be hard to interpret. So it is necessary to have the timekeeper review all entries after they are included in the invoice to catch any errors. That causes a delay. If that lawyer has a trial or personal emergency at the wrong time, many invoices could be delayed waiting on the lawyer’s proofreading (and if the lawyer does find a correction or edit, the process is restarted for the billing to be edited).
If you want your firm to streamline the billing and invoicing process, it is time to stop using handwritten timesheets. The more quickly bookkeeping receives the time capture in digital format, the more efficient the process will become. So it is best just to begin with timesheets completed digitally. Today, you do not even have to be a great typist to accomplish this. There are several paths to success:
- Capture your time in your practice management solution’s time capture feature. This is the most efficient way, as you are likely already working in the practice management solution when you finish a task, and the feature locates the data where the invoices will ultimately be prepared. If you quickly want to review all billing entries on a single client file, this can be easily done. You should also do some research to determine what app or other tools your solution provides to do a proper billing entry through your smartphone when you are out of the office and not returning that day.
- Invest in a stand-alone time capture and billing tool to do this. I generally caution against this approach because a subscription to these tools is not much cheaper than a subscription to practice management software, which includes these tools and much, much more. But it may be right for some smaller firms.
- Build some simple digital timesheets. These can be either Word documents with tables included that look like a paper, carbonless billing sheet or in Excel. Make sure your computer has a quality microphone. Save the billing sheet template on the timekeeper’s desktop and make the document read only. That way, every time the timesheet template is opened, the user will be forced to save it with a name like “[date] timesheet from JAC.” Then even a non-typing lawyer can use the built-in dictation features of Word or Excel to quickly dictate their time entries. It is probably also useful to note that Windows Key + H provides speech recognition dictation in other Windows data entry locations. At the end of each billing day, the document should be forwarded to the billing department.
This may not sound like a game changer, but taking the handwritten entries out of the billing process will save time and reduce errors.
Thinking of your billing entries as data and determining how to get rid of almost all handwritten timesheets shouldn’t be a major project. (Of course, I’m not the one who has to convince the senior partner to change.) But it will pay dividends in the months ahead.
With the speech recognition tools included in Microsoft Word and Windows, even a non-typing lawyer can contemporaneously record their time into a document to send to the billing department. Less time spent deciphering handwriting is a win for everyone.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — February, 2023 — Vol. 94, No. 2