Tracking your time rather than reconstructing it at the end of the month turns out to be really important. As in, not-overbilling-your-clients-by-23% important. Whether or not you share your time records with your clients in real time, you do need to keep a time log.
Hopefully that is a no-brainer for everyone who reads this post, but I doubt it. I have known plenty of lawyers who reconstruct time at the end of every month — or every couple of months — from their calendar, emails, and memory. Even if you only put together your bill at the end of the month, you need to track your time as you go. These are the major tools for doing that.
However you decide to track your time, pick a method and stick to it. When you sit down to assemble your invoices, the fewer places you have to go to get the raw data, the better. The more methods you use to track your time, the more mistakes you will make.
There is nothing wrong with paper. In fact, paper has a lot of advantages when it comes to tracking time. Just keep a cheap notebook or a stack of index cards with you at all times, and write down what you were doing and how much time you spend doing it.
(There are all kinds of print-your-own templates and fancy time-keeping notepads out there, if you want to get fancy, but you don’t need them.)
Spreadsheets are pretty ideal for timekeeping, and with Google Docs, iWork, and Office cloud apps, they are quite portable. In fact, with Google Docs, you can even have multiple people billing time on the same spreadsheet at the same time.
Text files can work really well for timekeeping, actually.
In Notepad (Windows), you can enter a timestamp by pressing F5 (this does not work in other apps). Do this every time you change tasks, add a few notes, and you will have a running time log. If you put your text file time log in Dropbox, you can access it from your phone and tablet, making your time log portable.
If you use AutoHotKey (Windows) or TextExpander (Mac), you can add timestamps in other apps (the F5 shortcut only works in Notepad on Windows), and set up shortcuts for your frequently-billed tasks. Text files are not fancy, but they make for quick and easy time records.
(If you want to get really fancy, use an app like Drafts to automatically append your notes with a timestamp to a timesheet.txt file in your Dropbox.)
Passive Tracking Software
Timekeeping is tedious. There are ways to take shortcuts and bill more accurately, though. Chrometa, for example, tracks what you are doing on your computer, tablet, and phone (you can also add time manually) and assemble timesheets or export your time to FreshBooks, QuickBooks, Clio, and Xero. I’ve tried Chrometa before, and it really is easy to use.
There are plenty of software packages that include a timekeeping component. I have mostly used Freshbooks, but all practice management software has timekeeping functions, and so do many accounting packages. The nice thing about using timekeeping software is that your invoices are basically assembled as you go.
There are plenty of ways to track your time, but there is only one important criterion for picking a tool: pick the one you actually use. The tool is basically irrelevant; the important part is capturing your time accurately as you go.