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How to get your fee-earners to keep timekeeping: Looking beyond the carrot and stick approach
//14-02-2023

How to get your fee-earners to keep timekeeping: Looking beyond the carrot and stick approach

Managers often question the need to use a carrot or stick approach to ensure that fee-earners keep on top of their time recording. However, this is often an ineffective approach – at least in the long term.

The most common approach is to constantly remind attorneys to enter time. In some firms it might even have escalated to a partner who takes on the role of “time cop” to send chase emails, typically at the end of each month. Reminders can also be sent via automated emails, Outlook reminders, reminders on the firm’s intranet, mobile phone alerts, or recurring calendar “appointments” – essentially earmarking time slices for attorneys to enter time.

This often works to a degree – but also tend to prove the law of diminishing returns. People quickly grasp that no actual person is behind an automated reminder, which somehow makes it easier to ignore. Meanwhile the firm’s designated “time cop” must stick to the job tenaciously for the long term. This ironically is hardly an effective use of their time.

Another popular (and complementary) approach is financial. Either imposing a fine for late entries (stick) or a bonus (carrot) for those who complete on time. This imposes an on-going administrative burden on the firm, plus it comes up against the fact that for partners and mid-level associates on six-figure incomes, frankly the odd $100 in fines or bonuses make little impact.

Motivating timekeepers

So how should firms motivate busy professionals to enter time regularly without continually wielding either the carrot or the stick? Here’s four steps to consider

1. Increase understanding

Consider first that education and awareness is needed. Firms must communicate the value of contemporaneous timekeeping. When people don’t see the point of a behaviour it’s not likely to stick. So make it clear to people at all levels why immaculate timekeeping is important. And this importance comes under two headings: relationships and revenue.

Lax timekeeping leads to vague and inaccurate invoices. When clients that, their instinctive response is one of suspicion that they’re being overcharged. Poor timekeeping has the effect of eroding client trust in the firm’s integrity, probity and care.

Conversely, when really accurate timekeeping is practiced, and clients recognize the entries they’re being billed for, it reassures them and they don’t feel bilked. Better timekeeping leads to stronger, more enduring client relationships. It’s important that firms tell their attorneys that good timekeeping nurtures client relationships.

This also impacts revenue. Better timekeeping results in more billable hours being captured and greater realisation of their invoices being paid due to invoices not being vague and offering that transparency.

2. Promote ‘velocity’

Firms next need to define and promote a timekeeping metric which is objective, universal and important.

Velocity is the time lag between doing the activity and making the time entry for that activity. If you perform the work on Monday, and write up the time entry on Friday – your velocity is 4 days. In North America, the average velocity is between 2 and 4 days.

What makes velocity so powerful is the unambiguous correlation between it and revenue: when velocity comes down, revenue goes up. This happens both because more time is accurately captured (increased billing) and because clients see more accurate bills, so dispute invoices less (higher realisation).

Client relationships also benefit from lower velocity because – as mentioned above – people trust you more when they trust your bill more (even if it’s bigger).

3. Provide the right tools

Once your team is on-board, timekeepers need the right technology to be able to record time effectively. After all, a leading reason why timekeeping is a hated task is because a lot of the technology is just horrible. It’s not designed with the user experience in mind. It’s slow to access and unwieldy to use. It follows that if firms can reduce the arduousness of time entry, better timekeeping will result.

Firms should supply timekeepers with effective timekeeping tools – especially tech which enables contemporaneous time entry on any device, anytime and anywhere. This simply makes time entry a much less painful exercise than the brain-racking performance of trying to recall activity in retrospect. It increases the volume and accuracy of time entry. As we now know, better relationships and higher revenue are the results.

4. Make velocity king

Now you have the buy-in, theory and tools, the final step is to formalise velocity into your standard reporting processes.

Velocity’s power partly lies in the fact that it’s such a simple, single metric that measures performance at the beginning of the work-cash cycle. It’s one number, which with the right systems can be put against each timekeeper’s name and made visible at various levels (firm, practice group, and individual) and via. various channels (intranet, financial reports, newsletters and on individual devices)

Use of this metric within multi-pronged communication channels will drive better timekeeping behaviour. Have practice group leaders (not automated emails) monitor and measure their group’s performance. Continually use the metric (vs. peers and firm) to demonstrate the individual’s timekeeping performance and continually emphasize that the lower velocity is, the better that is for the firm. Taking it one step further, the velocity metric can also be factored into associate reviews and compensation plans.

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