Carefully Track Time


Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Whether you bill clients at an hourly rate or work on cases with attorney fee awards, you need to keep track of your time very carefully. Many firms have established increments for billing time, and some firms have even assigned increments for certain tasks. However you do it, make sure every entry has sufficient detail and is justified.

For example, one court recently held (PDF):

[T]he Court finds that the firm’s time spent reading and reviewing e-mails is excessive, especially considering that the review of such e-mails often did not require any follow-up, as evidenced by the firm’s own detailed time records. The uniform fifteen minute entries strike the Court as excessive, if not implausible, as it is highly unlikely that every single review of an e-mail, without follow- up, required fifteen minutes of time . . .

This case appears to be unique in the sense that the firm had a uniform policy for emails, and also contained sufficient detail to establish fifteen minutes was not warranted in the judge’s opinion.

Many firms use uniform increments with no explanation. But even when a case requires repetitive tasks, uniform increments can be a dangerous proposition. When you need to track your time, take careful notes, and make sure your billing matches up with the task.

(photo: purplemattfish)


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  • Steven Bolton

    Your article states:
    “However you do it, make sure every entry has sufficient detail and is justified”.

    I would be interested in how much detail should be put into a client’s bill. I have seen attorneys put next to nothing in each time entry and some write a book. It is an art but it would be interesting if you wrote on article on how much should be included in a client’s bill.

    Steve Bolton

  • “Enough detail” is undefinable, but I can offer a few pointers. First, keep abbreviations to a bare minimum. Write your timekeeping entries more like you would write a letter describing what you did. Second, include a description of what you actually did. For example, I might enter my time as “Started drafting memorandum in support of motion for summary judgment, including introduction and statement of facts; discuss argument for memorandum with R Ryder.”

  • @ Steven – I agree with Sam. You do not need to write a book, but you need to describe what you did. In the case quoted, I am willing to bet the judge would have been more apt to leave the billings alone if the entries said “.25 hours reviewing 10 page email,” as opposed to “.25 hours reviewing one email.”

  • And pick up a copy of Chrometa, proud sponsor of :)

    Link to the left – for a cheap $99, it’ll keep an automatic safety net of your billable time for you.

  • Great points, Randall. Tracking time is one thing and describing it is another. Sure, it might take a little extra time to stop yourself in your tracks to gather your thoughts and answer, “What is it specifically that I’m about to do and how does it pertain to the case?” But these little things add up.

    ……And it just might save you when you need it. That quote from the court demonstrates its importance.

  • Steve Miller

    With a time/billing program like PCLaw™ you can create an unlimited number of 4-character codes which will auto-fill a time entry with an explanation as long as 256 characters. This is especially useful for items which will be used many times over the course of a particular type of matter. Several years ago we assisted a client law firm submit a detailed bill (in spreadsheet form imported from PCLaw) which covered over 5 years of time worth in excess of $15 million. The PCLaw explanations were accepted by the court without exception. Also, time/billing programs allow for the creation of standard time increments for specific types of tasks. Apparently, the judge in the quoted case thought there was a bit of overreaching with 15 minutes per email. If the billing rate was $400, that would have meant $100/email. We recommend a standard time increment of 6 minutes or 1/10th of an hour, adjusted up for more than a simple cursory review.

  • Yes, but then you have to use PCLaw. Blech.

    On the 6-minute increments, I believe at least one judge has criticized that practice, since with modern software, there is no reason to bill anything other than the actual time. However, I still use 6-minute increments, as do most lawyers I know.