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LEGAL PRODUCTIVITY SOFTWARE SERIES: Slaying the billing beast with automationThe problem with reconstructionContemporaneous time entry = accurate time entryThere’s a third waySee it for yourself

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


February 28, 2019

by Deborah Savadra

You hate timesheets. (Doesn’t everyone?) It’s a hassle to write down every little thing you do. And a bit demeaning, too. Who wants to live their life in six-minute increments?

You want to practice law, not become mired in administrivia.

In fact, most lawyers hate timekeeping so much, they default to reconstructive time entry. It’s just like it sounds: using various cues (emails sent, documents edited, etc.) to reconstruct what you did that day. Some do it at the end of each day. Some, weekly.

Of course, the most egregious reconstructive timekeepers avoid timesheets until it’s time to bill. They wait until the end of the month or quarter, then try to re-construct everything from emails and other files. Then someone’s got to enter an entire period’s worth of timesheets all at once, whether it’s convenient or not.

The problem with reconstruction

Even if you’re diligent about reconstructing your time every single day, it’s an inherently inaccurate process. Are you sure that phone conference lasted 0.3 hours? How long did you really work on that document? You can never be 100% sure.

Regardless of how often you reconstruct your time, this approach has several problems:

  • It assumes you really have a large and/or consistent block of time to comb through emails, track down documents, and rack your brain trying to remember what you did. Do you even remember what you had for lunch last Wednesday? Then why would you rely on your memory to bill?
  • What if you have trial prep right at the end of the month? Or business travel? Or you’re out of the office entirely and don’t have documents to refer to? More lag time between billable activity and time entry means more billable time lost.
  • The day will come when a client notices one of your reconstructed time entries doesn’t square with his or her calendar or other records. Forever after, your bills will be subject to intense scrutiny.
  • Clients also scrutinize bills for “vague descriptions” and disallow payment for those time entries. Time entries that include the context for, say, that conversation with the client that happened on the 16th are a lot more likely to get paid.
  • If you delay billing to catch up on timekeeping, you risk alienating clients. They want to be able to manage their cash flow. Dumping a large and/or late bill on them frustrates that intention.
  • Not having time entry up-to-date and easily accessible doesn’t let you keep tabs on work-in-progress (WIP) accurately. That’s particularly important when you’re working on retainer.

Even the most disciplined reconstructive timekeeper is bound to miss something each day. Neglect to record just 0.2 hours each day, and you’ll lose 52.8 billable hours by the end of the year. Multiply that by the number of billable workers in your firm, and that’s a lot of money to leave on the table.

Contemporaneous time entry = accurate time entry

So reconstructing your time, no matter how often, is clearly too risky. You’ve got no choice but to record your activities as you go, right?

That approach has problems, too. You know it breaks your concentration to stop in the middle of lawyering to write down what you did. Even if your time and billing software lets you start an electronic timer for each task, you sense you’re breaking your mental stride every time you stop and start.

You’re not wrong.

When you set aside one task to start another, you’re engaging in what cognitive scientists call task switching. While some task switching is inevitable (we’re wired to do it in 1/10th of a second), constantly switching between incomplete tasks can make you up to 40% less productive. That’s because every time you switch from one task to another, your brain carries over a remnant of the previous task, which slows down the subsequent task.

In today’s competitive legal environment, inefficiency is a cost you can’t afford.

There’s a third way

So, it’s risky to reconstruct your time, and recording time as you work is a productivity killer. What are you supposed to do?

Here’s an idea: hire an assistant whose only job is to follow you around all day, watch over your shoulder, and take copious notes about what you’re doing and which client you’re doing it for. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Automatic timekeeping: like an over-the-shoulder assistant, but better

Back in the real world, there’s another option: automatic . Smokeball’s law office time-tracking software works silently in the background, like that over-the-shoulder assistant you’d love to have. Launch a document within Smokeball, and Smokeball adds a time entry in the correct matter with a description of what you’ve worked on. Close that document to move on to another task, and Smokeball records how much time you spent editing that document and starts another time entry for the new task.  As you switch tasks, the timers stop and start automatically for what you’re working on at that time – so jump around and never worry about over-capturing time!

And because every document you work on and every task you undertake in Smokeball is associated with a specific matter, it’s immediately available for billing. Your time entry occurs automatically, seamlessly integrated with your billing system.

It’s even better than having a live assistant tracking your every move, because Smokeball’s time tracking operates silently in the background, never interrupting you and never needing additional time to type up time entries.

Tracking time on the go

And with Smokeball’s mobile app, you can track all that smartphone activity, too. Made a call from the courthouse? Smokeball’s got it. Sent an email from your phone? Noted. There’s no stopping to make notes about what you did for whom. Who’s got time for that?

It’s the future

If this all sounds a little too far-fetched to you, it shouldn’t. Recent technology advances are empowering all sorts of communication between applications, like Smokeball’s powerful integration with Microsoft Word. If your competition isn’t already taking advantage of these new tech-driven superpowers, they soon will. Don’t get left behind!

The time value of money, and the money value of time

You’ve heard of the time value of money: money available now is worth more than the identical sum in the future. We all want to get paid sooner than later, right? If billable activities are being captured as they happen, you can bill faster so money can come in faster.

And because Smokeball’s doing all that time entry for you, that frees up everyone’s time to work on profitable work rather than time entry or time re-creation.

Not just for billing

Whether you’re billing by the hour or not, all this as-it-happens activity capture also provides you with a gold mine of information about what’s happening inside your law firm. Has your associate been working on that brief that’s due Tuesday? How much progress has your paralegal made on those records requests? You don’t have to call a meeting to find out. It’s all right there in Smokeball. Watch matter by matter activity in real time.

Pull back from the details to a larger view, and you’ll see trends. Run profitability reports. Find out which matter types generate the most revenue. All those data-driven insights help you make better decisions about your firm’s strategic direction. That’s some serious leverage over your competition!

Speaking of trends, if you’re looking to move your practice to flat fees or value billing, you can use all this data in Smokeball to decide how best to approach it. In which matter types does flat fee billing make the most sense? How much time do you typically spend in court appearances versus document creation? Running Smokeball reports moves your analysis from guesstimating to data mining. That’s smarter decision-making.

See it for yourself

Smokeball’s automatic time and activity tracking is something you’ll just have to see to believe. And you can! Request a Smokeball demo today, and we’ll show you how automated time capture works in real time plus how this could be a game-changer for your billing, management and strategic planning.

Deborah Savadra spends a lot of her time explaining technology to lawyers, both as editor and chief blogger at Legal Office Guru and as a copywriter for the legal tech industry. She’s worked with technology as both an end user in law firms and as an implementation consultant. Connect with her on LinkedIn at

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