Do Associates Intentionally Underreport Chargeable Time?

Smart Time Solves a Mystery, Revealing Hidden Timekeeping Behaviors and Motives

What would you say if I told you that some timekeepers intentionally underreport their time? I’d never thought about it as a possibility, since in most law firms putting up big hours is a badge of honor. Why would anybody underreport their time?

Who Knew?

When a law firm uses Smart Time, our timekeeping system, beyond its original intent, you can bet it gets our attention. If you see something once, it’s merely interesting, but see something twice? That’s when I ask, “What’s going on here?”

We’ve studied and helped firms build time entry due date compliance policies. But the issue of underreporting or “eating” time had never crossed our radar.

However, recently, two of our clients told us how they used Smart Time: to find out if associates intentionally underreport chargeable time and why.

In my writings, I’ve talked extensively about timekeepers who underreport or leak time because they had trouble remembering, at the moment they prepare their timesheets, what they did. But intentional underreporting? That’s another beast.

A Little Detective Work

What happened is that the firms ran time captures for a month for each timekeeper. The time captures reported what the timekeeper did, when they did it and how long it took. They then compared the time captures to the actual hours booked, looking for patterns of missing time.

The first finding both firms reported to us is that younger and less experienced associates tend to underreport more time than experienced associates.

When the firm’s management spoke to the offending associates, they first confirmed the behavior and then asked, “Why?” This is what they learned:

  • Associates underreported time in order to make superiors think they were more competent than other associates in the same class – which they hoped would lead to better assignments.

  • Associates underreported time to take pride in meeting the time allotted by their superior to complete the assigned task.

  • Some associates reported that the billing partner on the matter told them to do it.

I’ll leave it to you to play industrial psychologist to figure out what this all means. I think it has a lot to do with associates gaming competence and partners bullying young associates. But, whatever it means, it’s not a healthy process.

Let Nothing Escape

Let me make this clear. Everybody should record everything they did without judgment. Let the billing partner, at prebill time, decide what gets billed and what gets written off. Complete and accurate timesheets should be at the foundation of your timekeeping policy.

Top Three Timekeeping Metrics Every Law Firm Should Measure

We Built Smart Time with These In Mind

What timekeeping metrics should you measure? Here’s our offering: a list of the top three metrics absolutely every law firm should be tracking. And, we believe that this information should be made available to both the timekeeper and management. After all, if there isn’t a feedback loop within the firm based on those metrics, what point would there be in measuring?

1. Hours Booked: This is the classic timekeeping measure for law firms. How many billable and non-billable hours did the timekeeper book? Some call this metric a measure of productivity, which might be debatable. But it does shed light on how hard the timekeeper is working. It also shows how many hours a timekeeper has worked that can be converted into revenue.

While most firms track booked hours for the current month and year-to-date, we have also seen firms track hours for 18 months rolling, in order to see longer-term trends. If you set budgets (and I highly recommend you do), be sure to show the variance between hours worked against budget, and be sure your timekeeping system puts these stats in front of the timekeeper. We’ve seen that the mere presence of monthly and annual budgets helps increase booked hours. I am always amazed at how many firms don’t have clearly stated budgets, but ones tentatively said with a whisper.

2. Month-End Late Time:  You’ll want to look closely at how many hours the timekeeper books after the month-end close, and also how many hours miss the monthly billing cycle. All the research into law firm profitability shows that hours booked and billed months late have a lower profitability realization rate. It’s clear that month-end late time is a sure way to lose revenue you’d have otherwise realized. In fact, we’ve seen this number as high as 7% in some firms. Management must work to bring month-end late time down; these stats are a surefire way to make your managing partner crazy. (Give the dog a bone.)

3. Time Entry Velocity:  This measures how quickly time entries get recorded into the system, or, in other words, how many days after doing the work that the timekeeper enters hours into the system.

This one’s important, so let’s dive deeper into the math. Velocity = the difference between the work date and the entry date. So, when velocity = 0, the timekeeper worked and booked time on the same day. When velocity = 2, the timekeeper put in a full week of time into the system on Friday. If velocity = 15, that means the timekeeper is putting all their time in at month end.

Now, the right way to measure velocity is to score every time entry and then average it to get an overall score for each timekeeper. This score transmits their behavior. If a user averages a score between 0 and 1, they are a “contemporaneous” timekeeper, meaning they enter time on the same or next day. To support this type of timekeeper, you must have contemporaneous timekeeping tools like rapid time entry screens and timers.

If a user’s score is greater than 2, they are a “reconstructionist” timekeeper, meaning they are attempting to recreate their day by looking at emails, phone calls, appointments and such to reconstruct their time entries days after the fact. This type especially benefits from time capture technology, which provides the user a journal (derived from electronically monitoring the timekeepers) of what they did, when they did it and how long it took.

Besides identifying behavior, velocity also measures timekeepers’ compliance against the firm’s time entry due date policy. Here, you’ll want to measure the difference between the policy score and the individual’s score. For example, if the firm’s policy is that time for the week must be entered by Friday, the compliance policy has a score of 2. If the user has a velocity score of 3, it means they are not in compliance.

Most likely you know who your late timekeepers are, and this measure gives you a way to quantify it.

So there you have it—the metrics that will give you insight into your timekeepers’ behaviors, and thus, your firm’s inner workings. (Or not-workings, as the case may be.)

With these in hand—reported to you in Smart Time—users and management can come together to better steer the ship toward timekeeping compliance and greater profitability—all with greater simplicity and ease.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Profitable AFAs

mrynowecer
Michael Rynowecer
President, BTI Consulting Group
Special Guest Post

Far out at the edges of unchartered space exists the mostly uninhabited planet of Profitable AFAs.

This isn’t science fiction comedy. Profitable AFAs do, in fact, exist. We partnered with our friends at Law360 to survey more than 750 attorneys. What we discovered is 22% of partners are prospering in what many consider a desolate land.

BTI_Alternative_Fee_Arrangements_AFAs_2014AFAs are old news. Clients demanding AFAs is old news. Turning a clear profit from AFAs is new.

Nearly 80% of law firm partners can’t figure out how to get to Profitable AFAs. Mismanaged scope, poor budgeting skills, and not enough flexibility to change internal work processes are the most common culprits to undermining profitability in AFAs.

Fortunately, 22% of partners have charted the path to profitability for everyone else to follow. Good tools and processes are the most massively useful things a lawyer can have to reach Profitable AFAs.

  1. Develop detailed budgets to understand and manage costs
  2. Track and monitor budgets like a hawk at least weekly
  3. Assign all work to lawyers on the team with time-specific deadlines and the number of hours budgeted for the task
  4. Review your clients’ objectives with the entire team
  5. Solicit suggestions from the team on how to eliminate unneeded work steps
  6. Discuss case progress with your clients as a normal course of business—a regular dialogue about progress
  7. Track changes in scope or underlying facts and share any budget impact with your clients immediately upon discovery
  8. Actively challenge the team to beat deadlines and deliver early
  9. Develop high trust relationships with your clients

AFAs only work when your client relationships are at the absolute highest levels of trust—not just a good relationship—but a deep, embedded relationship. Part of the simplicity and certainty delivered by AFAs comes from the client believing their lawyer will deliver. Lawyers who have a history of breaking budgets, have infrequent dialogue with their clients (with or without AFAs) or don’t believe in the power of budgets are more likely to end up in make-less-money column—far, far away from planet Profitable AFAs.

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About The BTI Consulting Group, Inc.

We conduct more independent research on how clients acquire, manage, and evaluate their professional service providers than virtually anyone. Our unique methods and approach have propelled over 20 years of fact-based research on buyers and sellers of professional services. We have interviewed more than 13,000 buyers. We benchmark how Fortune 1000 companies buy, how professional services firms sell, and how to manage service provider performance.  For more information visit http://www.bticonsulting.com

The Evolution of the Law Office Infographic

The founders of Smart WebParts have been in the legal industry since the 1970s.   Collectively, we’ve got a lot of history under our belts.  Last month we got nostalgic and created the “The Evolution of the Law Office” infographic. We hope you enjoy it.  What do you remember?

Report: Alternative Fees Continue Snail-Paced Assault on Billable Hour

.by Jennifer Smith
Wall Street Journal Law Blog

Despite all the hoopla about hourly billing going the way of the Edsel, law firms and their corporate clients have been much slower to adopt alternative billing arrangements than many had predicted, according to a new survey.

Loyal Law Blaggers will recall that use of flat rates, contingency fees and other alternative fees is on the rise and continues to grow—an uptick triggered in part by the economic downturn and client pressure to reduce legal costs.

But many in the legal world are just dipping their toes into the alternative fee pool, instead of opting for a full-tilt cannonball immersion, says a new report by ALM Legal Intelligence. It was released Tuesday in conjunction with the legal technology company LexisNexis, which this week is also launching a new data-driven consulting service for in-house lawyers.

The ALM report surveyed 141 in-house law departments and 194 law firms on their use of—and satisfaction with—alternative billing arrangements.

It found that most law firms continue to rely on traditional billing for the majority of their work, and law firms are on whole less delighted with alternative fees than the corporate law departments they serve. Still, alternative billing arrangements are not going anyway anytime soon, and that could force wider shifts in the legal industry, the report warned:

If law firms and legal departments continue migrating away from the billable hour model, both sides will need to embrace profound structural changes, such as training legal staff to manage matters within a budget while keeping an eye on profits.

Lawyers and corporate clients have  different reasons for embracing alternative fees, the report said:  legal departments like the cost savings, efficiency and ability to map out how much they will be spending, while law firms use alternative fee arrangements to attract and/or keep clients or narrow the gap between the billed cost of a matter and the amount they actually end up collecting.

Other highlights from the report:

• ”The Billable Hour Still Drives the Boat,” it says, and many law firms remain much more comfortable with the status quo. Just 6% of law firms surveyed said they used AFAs for more than half their legal work in 2011, and only 12% of law departments reported using them for work assigned to outside counsel.

• Bidding and reverse auctions, once a rarity in the legal world, are on the rise. One-fifth of law departments reported using them for high-volume and repetitive work, while just over one-third of law firms said they had participated in those processes.

• In-house law departments and outside counsel are at least in agreement on their favorite types of alternative fee arrangements. The top three: flat fee (89% of law departments like them, and 93% of law firms); blended rate, where  all lawyers on a matter charge one agreed-upon hourly rate (47% of law departments, 89% of firms); and capped fee (57% of law departments, 83% of firms).

LexisNexis® Law Firm Billable Hours Survey

LexisNexis®  just published it survey on law firm billable hours for the small firm segment.  The survey was conducted in May of this year and included nearly 500 responses.  Survey participants ranged from sole practitioners to 20+ attorney firms.

Besides demographic data, the survey asked two key questions:

  • How many hours on average do you work per day?
  • How many hours on average do you bill per day?

The survey reported the following results.  “The average for all 499 respondents: The average hour worked on a daily basis was 9 hours; whereas the average hours billed on a daily basis was 6 hours.  The 33% difference in hours worked vs. hours billed can be caused by a number of factors:

  • Not utilizing and/or leveraging staff for non-billable functions
  • Inefficiency of managing and billing client work
  • Goodwill issues such as: Lawyers spend some of their time engaged in networking, business development and other non-billable activities – particularly when business is slow.  Some lawyers believe they cannot bill all clients for all hours worked so they purposely “discount” the actual number of hours worked in order to keep clients happy.

According to the survey, we found that attorneys were not billing all the time they worked. There are opportunities to increase billing efficiency whether by improving capture techniques or delegating non-billable tasks to others.

To get a copy of the full survey report  click here.

Clients falling back on ‘safe’ hourly rates

Clients are requesting, yet rejecting, innovative fixed-fee arrangements, lawyers at the NSW Practice Management conference heard last week.

The managing partner of Freehills, Mark Rigotti, shared his firm’s experience of the trend for alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) with an audience of around 20 at his presentation: Challenges to profitability and financial issues.

“[We] lay it out, a smorgasbord, on the table for them and they go for the chicken every time because it’s safe,” said Rigotti (pictured).

Richard Wood, the Adelaide principal of boutique insurance firm Gilchrist Connell, shared a similar experience.

“In every tender … in the last 10 years we’ve been asked to put up alternate fee proposals, which we’ve done, and none have been accepted,” said Wood.

“There’s a lot of hysteria about hourly rates and moving away from it and [I] don’t quite know who’s driving that because I speak to corporate counsel who don’t use them and my insurers don’t use them.”

Rigotti suggested that most general counsels (GCs) have “been brought up on a diet of hourly rates … that’s how [they] think, measure value and compare” and, provided they deliver what their organisation requires, the method is up to them.

“They know they want something different but they’re not sure what they want and if it all gets too difficult they’ll go back to what they know,” said Rigotti.

According to a Mallesons Stephen Jacques (now King & Wood Mallesons) survey of 374 in-house lawyers – 44 per cent of which were GCs –  50 per cent of respondents said fees billed at an hourly rate make up over 90 per cent of their total legal spend.

The survey, released in August last year, showed 66 per cent of respondents were happy with their current billing arrangements and only 29 per cent had reduced their use of billable hours in the past two years.

“You’ll see [from that survey] the top three AFAs were around fixed fees, capped fees and volume-based discounting. None of those are that innovative,” said Rigotti, adding that this indicates clients want certainty and that they were struggling with the difficulty of monitoring AFAs.

Pricing mixed up with sales

Rigotti said Freehills was experimenting with innovative AFAs with a “good client” and that there had been mixed experiences.

“Sometimes they like it, other times they think ‘let’s just get on with it’,” he said.

The firm, however, still captures all the time actually being spent on those jobs, to check wether they were profitable; a process, Rigotti admits, is “probably the wrong way to think about it.”

“It’s having an each-way bet,” he said, adding that the ultimate future is to unlink the sales and pricing conversations.

“Sometimes the fixed price is actually a negotiating piece of work upfront to win the job rather than a fully transparent dialogue with the client to appropriately price what they expect. If you could reach that [open and transparent] nirvana I think that’d be fine [but] quite often it’s mixed up with the sales proposition.”

In another fee experiment aimed at articulating the value of legal work, Freehills asked a client to pay what they believed the firm’s advice was worth.

Without negotiating any price upfront, Freehills gave the client a print out showing how much time it had spent on the matter and the client came back with 95 per cent of what was on the hourly timesheet.

“It put us at risk … but it allowed us to zero in on that the five per cent [which] was down to things they didn’t really need because they had in-house capabilities on particular parts of this contract. Normally that would be hidden in a discussion ‘oh the bill’s a bit high can you do something about it, can you bring it down?’.”