Posted by Joanne Hunter, head of marketing at Legal Futures Associate Select Legal Systems 
Time is a big deal for any law firm and possibly one of the most challenging aspects of running any legal practice.
This blog poses the question: Do your fee-earners value, manage and capture your firm’s most precious commodity effectively?
Or put another way, should your firm be generating an extra £111,000+ per fee-earner each year?
Implementing a good practice management system is only part of the answer. Having worked closely with many law firms over many years, my advice to anyone concerned about the financial impact of wasted time across their law firm would be to review the firm’s time from three perspectives: how you value time, how you manage time and how you capture time.
The first £46,000
Do your fee-earners value their time? More importantly do they appreciate its worth to the business? They may say they do, but looking closely at their behaviour will tell you more.
Do you have fee-earners who…
…say yes to everything? A fee-earner who says yes to every request will never achieve their goals. Saying no is an important skill that successful people realise is necessary to get their goals accomplished. This doesn’t mean fee-earners should be unhelpful or inflexible. It is a matter of getting priorities right.
… are ruled by interruptions? We have all experienced those frustrating ‘working days’ that quickly becomes one big interruption. Fee-earners must learn to take control of their day. Shutting out the interruptions is sometimes necessary. It is quite acceptable to close the door, turn off the phone and shut down your email in order to schedule some time to focus on your fee-earning activities.
… allow the priorities of others trump their own? Allowing others to schedule meetings in your calendar is all well and good, but when you readily accept requests from colleagues wanting help with their priorities all to the detriment of your own workload, you need to re-think your approach. There is a fine line between helpful and being a ‘walk-over’. It’s acceptable to help others but there have to be limits.
… are blasé about time limits? When meetings and appointments run over, they tend to expand to completely fill your day. Ending meetings and appointments on time is a skill fee-earners must embrace. When you communicate up front that you have a time limit for a particular activity, it’s amazing how people magically adjust to fit the time allotted.
… accept lateness without question? When a person accepts lateness readily, it becomes acceptable. This is one of the most blatant forms of ‘time theft’ in business. Fee-earners need to hold themselves and others responsible for being on-time. When someone turns up late, the fee-earner should politely point out that the time slot has been missed and take steps to reschedule. This gives a clear message to everyone that the fee-earner’s time is valuable.
Your fee-earners’ time is the most precious resource the business has. It might sound obvious, but if a fee-earner does not set expectations about the value of their time, others will continue to take it whenever they see fit as the firm’s profitability continues to fritter away.
Imagine if just one fee-earner could generate one extra hour per day of fee-earning time by valuing their time more effectively. At an average rate of £200 per hour, they could earn an extra £46,400 per year in fees (based on an average working year of 232 working days).
For a firm with five fee-earners, you’re looking at £232,000 per annum, 10 fee-earners £460,000, 20 fee-earners £928,000, 30 fee-earners £1.4m, 40 fee-earners £1.86m, and 50 fee-earners £2.32m. The numbers speak for themselves.
There are many great training courses, blogs and books available and no shortage of advice when it comes to finding ways to improve time management.
In terms of books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy are the three most famous that spring to my mind.
These are all good reads offering sound advice on how to be more proactive and less reactive, how to tackle goal setting effectively and how to avoid procrastination.
However, my favourite time management tool is the Urgent/Important matrix devised by Stephen Covey. Simple, but effective.
We live in a time-pressured world where it is common to have multiple overlapping commitments that all seem to require immediate attention. Urgency is no longer reserved for special occasions. This matrix invites you to separate your tasks into four boxes.
|NOT IMPORTANT||BOX 3|
NOT URGENT &
It quickly becomes clear which items on your to-do list belong in Box 1.
Box 2 is for the fee-earner’s longer-term priorities and for strategising and development.
Box 3 is for time pressured distractions and the fee-earner must take each on its merits and decide whether to complete these actions or not.
The actions in Box 4 are neither urgent nor important and the fee-earner must question whether they should in fact be on their to-do list at all.
As the theory behind this tool goes, many people find most of their activities fall into boxes 1 and 3. Box 2 tends to be under-used, yet is probably the most important box of all because it is important that partners and fee-earners are able to work tactically and think strategically at the same time.
The aim of this tool is to help people organise their time better so that they expand the use of Box 2 – allowing themselves time to work on important tasks before they become urgent.
A good practice management system should help you manage your priority action list in this way.
As per the previous calculation, I am suggesting perhaps a further hour could be freed up per day per fee-earner by managing their time better – again based on an average rate of £200 per hour – meaning they could earn the firm an extra £46,400 per year in fees.
Another £18,560 – taking us to £111,000
So let’s assume your fee-earners ARE valuing time and they ARE managing it effectively. Wouldn’t it be an absolute crime if there weren’t capturing it and billing it?
Time recording isn’t always fully embraced by fee-earners. When they are working on a challenging case, juggling lots of facts and recording complicated evidence in a variety of formats, getting into the habit of recording their time can often slip to the bottom of their priority list.
One area that provides a perfect example is fee-earner emails. When a fee-earner sends a short email to a client, or responds to a client email, they may argue it only takes a short amount of time and to capture it would mean spending more time actually recording it than it actually took to send the email in the first place. As a result many fee-earners don’t bother charging for their shorter emails/email replies.
Your partners may not be losing too much sleep over this. But in my opinion, they should be!
Imagine a fee-earner missing out on say four units of billable time each day (i.e. 4 x short emails) @ £20 per unit (based on an average fee-earner hourly rate of £200). As a result of not recording this time, and therefore not billing it, over the year it equates to £18,560 (based on an average working year of 232 working days).
For a firm with five fee-earners you are looking at £93,000, 10 fee-earners £186,000, 20 fee-earners £371,000, 30 fee-earners £557,000, 40 fee-earners £742,000, and 50 fee-earners £928,000.
Of course, these calculations are based on not capturing short emails and email responses alone – they are scary numbers, especially when you think about all the other activities that are not being captured by your legal practice management system.
A good practice management system should provide integration with your chosen email system and should not only automatically file any incoming or outgoing emails against the relevant case, but it should also record fee-earner time spent on emails, either automatically recording a unit of time, or giving a simple prompt allowing the fee-earner to quickly type in the accurate number of units.
This is just one example where billable time is haemorrhaging from your bottom line and we all know there are many examples of other activities where the same logic applies.
It would be interesting to review this regularly and analyse where most of your billable time is being lost. Your legal case management software should allow your fee-earners to record all time and even allocate a ‘non-billable’ time code automatically as part of a legal procedure in its case management functionality.
If your fee-earners are not already recording all of their time, an interesting exercise would be to allocate a week in the not-too-distant future when every fee-earner is tasked with recording every moment of their time as either billable or non-billable.
My advice would be train them first, outlining what you expect of them. Then run a report giving an overall picture of time for the business during the experimental week. Your practice management system should then be able to show you time statistics by department, by fee-earner, by activity.
You will be able to multiply it up over 12 months and when you share it with your colleagues it will make a massive statement about how precious fee-earner time is to the business.