Time Management, Down to Minutes


2016 Update: Don’t forget to check out our more recent discussion of the best ways to manage time, as well as this magical billable hour spreadsheet tool

Reader M writes in with a question about time management and billing fun…

There was a discussion a few weeks ago regarding timekeeping methods for those of us enslaved to the billable hour. I would LOVE to see a whole post on this. It’s been a hot topic among the associates at my small firm lately, particularly with the increased scrutiny our bills are getting from clients in the late economic times. What do people use to keep time? How efficient are people? Am I normal to have to spend 10 hours in the office to bill 8, or does that mean (a) I need to stop messing around so much (I’m looking at you, online shopping and Corporette threads!), or (b) I need to bill more aggressively? Any helpful tips on being descriptive in bills (5.9 hours for “organizing files”??)?

Tough question, and I’m very curious to see what the readers have to say.  I remember being told, as a summer associate (many moons ago and in a very different environment than we find ourselves today) that “everyone bills differently — some people get that flash of brilliance on a case in the middle of the night, or in the shower.”  (Um, for the record, I never billed any time for showers or middle-of-the-night-tossing-and-turning — not that work thoughts didn’t ever intrude on “private” time.)  (Pictured: Pocket Watch Clock, originally uploaded to Flickr by Svadilfari.) I’ll also point out that it varies from client to client — some prefer you to bill in quarter hours, others in tenths of the hour; some will let you get away with “Drafted brief” as your description; others will want “Researched and wrote section of brief on copyrightability.”

Ultimately, I think time management is a problem for everyone trapped at a desk for multiple hours on end.  I don’t think you’re unusual in the least to have to spend 10 hours in the office to bill 8.  A few things that I’ve personally looked into include:

  • the Pomodoro Technique — you focus on ONE THING ONLY for 25 minutes, then get a 5 minute break, then get back to work for that ONE THING ONLY for 25 minutes.  You have to restart the timer (or: you’re supposed to restart the timer) if someone or something interrupts your 25 minutes.  I like this in theory, but if your boss is fond of  frequent, must-answer-now interruptions, it can be a bit frustrating.  I downloaded a timer for my computer, but there seem to be several iPhone apps.  (Hat tip to the WSJ for their series on time-management.)
  • RescueTime — there’s a free version and a paid version (I pay $9.95 each month) that literally tracks where you’re going and what you’re doing online — and if you’re gone for more than 5 minutes, a window comes up that asks you where you’ve been.  I’d say it works best to supplement and check whatever billing system you already have, not as a stand-alone, but that’s just me.  I like that you get a weekly report telling you what you’ve spent your time on, as well as how you “rate” next to other users.  (You also get massive information telling you just how long you spent on Gmail, or Corporette, or… well, you get the picture.)

Readers, what are your favorite time-management techniques?  Particularly for those of you who bill (especially the more senior staffers and partners amongst you!), what are your personal ethics and tips for billing responsibly?



  1. Bmore Atty :

    I too work at a small firm and my time plays out about the same way (10 hrs at the office for about 8 hrs billing). My efficiency improves if I come in earlier (before others would be interrupting me with calls) and/or I bring a lunch instead of heading out. When I first started billing I used a timer I downloaded but after awhile I got so used to checking it I just switched to glancing at the clock and jotting my start/stop time down on whatever notes I was keeping on the work.

    How we phrase our billing is tightly scrutinized and here are the key verbs we’re given to use: reviewed, revised, drafted, prepared, researched. Rather than having spent 5.9 hours “organizing files” those 5.9 hours were spent “researching and preparing files for litigation; drafting file memorandum on same.” “File memorandum” stands in for any notes you drafted on how the file is organized etc…

  2. Anon kiki :

    As a soon to be corporate transactional attorney, I was wondering if anyone here can recommend good books about drafting corporate documents – Something that talks about language, how shall, will etc makes a difference. For example, what to look for when drafting something as simple as a confidentiality clause, also gives some examples to get the thought process started etc.

    • As a current corporate associate, I can attest that I never “draft” documents from scratch – generally, I’m handed a document (or various documents) from a previous transaction and use that as a model, then I change names, dates, any special transaction terms, etc. I took a class on drafting from scratch in law school which was a lot of fun, but I rarely ever use those skills in my current practice.

      • Working with Contracts: What Law School Doesn’t Teach You by Charles M. Fox is a great book. Although EC is right that you never draft anything from scratch, I found that Fox’s book was helpful when I didn’t understand the relevance of a particular provision or change in language.

      • skippy pea :

        This is not 100% true, though would be the case more often in certain types of corporate work. In corporate agreements, even small changes od make a huge difference while negotiating terms with the other side or putting together RFPs for the client etc.

        No book suggestions to offer though. I had a counsel sit me and show/explain me the while making changes to boilerplate language.

    • Ken Adams’ Manual of Style for Contract Drafting is priceless. While it does not discuss the substantive clauses of a particular agreement (e.g., what an Asset Purchase Agreement, or a Merger Agreement have to include), he is the absolute authority on the form and style of drafting. Reading his Manual made me not just a better drafter but also a better writer. He also has a blog (just google his name) on contract drafting matters. He tends to be a bit obnoxious and dictatorial in his blog, but it’s a worthy read.

  3. In the past 26 years, I’ve worked in small firms, biglaw, and am now on my own. Also, I have often been in the position of scrutinizing legal bills as a client. In my opinion, unless the client has insisted that the file be organized by an attorney, you can’t bill for clerical work. I have found that difficulty in describing the tasks performed often arises from something that really should not be billed at all. That having been said, as an associate, if you have been instructed to organize the file, then you should record your time and make it the decision of the billing attorney whether to bill that through to the client.

    And, unless you’re a litigator, it is going to be difficult to get 8 billable hours in less than 10. There are just too many inefficiencies involved in switching from one project to the next.

    As for recordkeeping, early on I adopted the Day-Timer system. Because every day is broken down into six-minute increments, it is easy to account for every bit of your time in the office (and out). That would help you identify what is stealing your time away from you (if you don’t already know). And because you are recording your time contemporaneously, your time sheet is completed when your day is.

    • I have a similar system. I keep an appointment book (divided into 15 minute increments) on my desk and make notes of my time throughout the day. That way, I don’t “lose” time if I can’t enter it into the computer immediately, I don’t have to fuss with timers (which I *always* forget to turn on or off), and if there is a question about my bill I can go back to my notes later (although my bills are always more detailed than my notes).

  4. Looking Hard :

    Threadjack – I will be moving to a new city in the near future and am actively seeking a position in that area. I have worked as a paralegal and as the technology manager for a mid-sized lawfirm. I recently applied for two different positions listed on a law firm’s website. The ‘application’ required that you upload your resume and send in your information directly on the website, in lieu of a cover letter. It asked interesting questions in an attempt to get creative, intelligent answers instead of basic / boring covers. I loved it and worked hard on my submission! I submitted my information last Wednesday. I just now called to follow-up. The person I spoke with was the person in charge of new hires. She indicated that she had received my resume but that they were still reviewing them and would call me soon. Here’s the question… How should I follow up? An email – thanks for taking the time to talk to me, I look forward to discussing my qualifications, etc.? Another call next week? A lengthy email that resembles a cover? I am very interested in this firm and the position I have applied for. I want to appear interested, without appearing too persistent. I would really love your thoughts and feedback ladies! Thanks

    • AnonInfinity :

      My gut instinct is that since you called to follow up, you should not follow up on your follow up.

      Maybe call back or email in a few weeks if you haven’t heard anything, unless she gave you a specific time frame, and then call or email after that has expired.

    • Yeah, I wouldn’t follow up. Really, I wouldn’t contact an employer at all until after they’ve already contacted me, but I don’t think that’s a huge deal. I think they’ll just contact you (or won’t) if they want an interview (or don’t). Good luck!

    • I would wait about 3 weeks and then send a short email reminding them that you are very interested in the position. To remind them what you can do for them, include 3 bullet points on that in the email, not a full cover letter, but boil down your cover letter into three key points, no more than 2 sentences each. That way, you remind them of you and also show enthusiasm, without going on and on or bothering them too much. Better to do it in three weeks, in my opinion, because: you just called, you should be in their mind already, no need to risk coming across as a pest; three weeks from now your email will convey the key points in your cover letter and remind them of you again without risking coming across as a pest.

  5. It’s definitely not unusual to spend 10 hours in the office just to bill 8. I like to play a game with myself of how high a billable percentage I can maintain (e.g., a perfect “score” is 100%, meaning 100% of my hours were billable (which I’ve never accomplished); an average score is 70%; below average is 50%, etc.). Not the most exciting game, but I find that daily goals and positive reinforcement of a score greater than 70% can be good motivators. (I’m obviously not hitting the perfect score today though!)

    I’m least productive on those days when I have a few tasks to get done, but no task is a priority. I find that I dabble on each task, without making much progress on any of them. To get around this problem by using a modified Pomodoro technique by focusing for 30 minutes on one task, then take a 10 minute break by checking email/Corporette/etc. or even by looking at the other tasks and making a list of what needs to be done on each project. The latter helps me feel like I’m accomplishing something on each of the projects, but it’s more organized so I actually do make progress.

    I’ve also started shutting off my monitor for awhile to break from any distractions. I print off those items that I need to read, move my keyboard away from the working area on my desk and shut off the monitor. I still hear my outlook notifiers, so I’m not totally off the radar.

  6. I used to be super efficient. I was an early in, early out person and could get lots done between 630 am and 9 am (which was when most other people came in!). I would bill literally all of that time. The rest of the day was a little bit less efficient, but I used to spend about 10.5 or 11 hrs in the office and bill between 9 and 10.

    I got less efficient when I had less work to do (my dept overstaffed), and I would swan around the internet for a long time. Regrettably, now it’s harder to get back that efficiency! Leechblock helps, to a point, but I’m likely to take the restrictions off if I run out of time, which is not helpful.

    A tip I got once – never bill round numbers. Clients are less likely to quibble when the bill says “2.9 hours” or “3.2 hours”, because they think you’re being exact. I never end anything in .5 or .0.

    Agreed with everything Bmore says above about action verbs. If you have a paragraph-long entry on how you spent the 3.8 hours, or whatever, instead of just “organize files”, clients can see what you did more easily.

    I think that a lot of people do bill aggressively and/or pad their bills – a LOT of people. I think out of my first associate class of 25, there were only about 5 people who were scrupulous down to the second about their time. Everyone else was more aggressive.

  7. I come into the office at 8 am, and if I bill 3 hours by noon, I can generally bill 7.5 by the time I leave for the day (that’s daily goal in my neck of the woods). Breaking it down into smaller pieces like parts of the day gives me motivation to get work done; otherwise, it’s too easy to think, “I’ll make that up this afternoon,” and suddenly you’re halfway through the afternoon.

    Also, I had a partner flat-out tell me I needed to start padding my bills. He’s right – I had to review a major line-item bill for a big transaction, and realized that every time I attended a conference call, my time entry (which, by the way, was exactly accurate because of my timers) was 0.2-0.6 hours lower than every other attorney’s time entry on that call. I’m struggling with what to do with this information; do I knowingly pad my time? Do I not pad my time, and miss goal or look like a slacker compared to my colleagues? Neither seems like a good option…

    • AnonInfinity :

      Is it possible that the others were including some time preparing for the call or writing down notes once the call was over?

      I am asking mostly because I’m not sure if that is the kind of thing one bills for. I’m just starting and am never sure if I’m doing it right.

      • Anonymous :

        If you are in fact preparing for the call or taking notes on it afterwards, that is definitely billable. EC’s situation is harder, but I can definitely say that if you are doing those things, yes, bill for them.

    • Padding your time can come back to haunt you. I have one friend who is in-house counsel and he fired a firm for padding its hours. Another friend works at a firm where several senior associates got accused of padding their hours and the entire firm’s bonus structure was slashed.

    • Just to clarify – we do “task-based” billing, so prepping for the conference call is a separate time entry from the conference call itself. The time entry for the call is supposed to start when you dial the number and end when you hang up – everything else is billed in a different category. And since all the lawyers from my firm that are on the call are usually in the same room, dialing in the from the same phone, our conference call entries should also be identical.

      • Could it be a question of rounding? I know when I first started, I always rounded my time down, but I since learned that the practice in my firm is to round up. We bill in 1/10 of an hour if it matters.

      • You sounds WAY too anal. If 5 people bill the same time and you bill 5 minutes less, maybe you are off a few minutes. And if you’re in one room I doubt you have your timer with you. If you dont change it and persistently bill less than the majority, I bet only you will be the one in trouble. There’s power in numbers. And if you rat out half your collegaues that will not end well.

        • She may be anal, but that’s the kind of discrepancy that in-house counsel will latch on to. “How come you were all on the same call, and this associate billed less?” Consistency is better than inconsistency. Find out from the other associates/folks on the call what they’re billing and why.

      • Hm, maybe the few extra minutes on your colleagues’ time sheets come from walking back to their offices while talking about the call or the deal in general?

    • Maybe there’s a rounding issue, too. I’ve always been told to round up- are you rounding down while everyone else is rounding up, perhaps? (or perhaps the partner is just unethical, and trying to get you to be unethical, too. That bugs me, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it.)

  8. Not a lawyer, and I don’t have to bill, but my boyfriend is a biglaw lawyer. He “does his time” once a week, on the weekend. It takes a surprisingly long amount of time and I’ll often say to him, “hey, why don’t you do this as you go along every day? wouldn’t that require less thought AND be more accurate?” His response is always that the only people who get so bent out of shape about time are women, and the only two women he knows who were absolutely precise timekeepers also happened to be those who generally weren’t good at identifying what “really mattered” in their work and have both been pushed out of the firm (they were also both really sharp professional dressers, for whatever that’s worth).

    From where I sit, the first part of the comment is probably just him being defensive (I don’t see anything bad about keeping accurate records of time, whether or not any men do it), but I do consider the second part a good cautionary tale that I try to apply to my own work situation.

    • Any lawyer who doesn’t think that accurrately billing, recording and narrating your time “really matters” is someone a) I would never hire and b) I would never want to work with. We sell our time- its our product. By shunting it off till days later, you can’t get it right. you either over charge your client or under sell your self. Either way is bad for someone.

      Perhaps they were “pushed out” because they voiced an opinion that inaccurately recording an attorneys’ time is not an ethical practice!

      PS- what does thier “sharp dressing” have anything to do with it?

      • I don’t disagree and I’m sure I would be a pretty anal biller if I were in a billing field!

        Another side of this though, perhaps specific to his firm and group and probably not more broadly applicable, is that his partners tend to write off a lot of time or otherwise present a bill consistent with an agreed-upon total that’s only loosely correlated with how much work is actually done (always or almost always less). I suppose that’s relevant context I should have provided. Additionally, his firm doesn’t have any billable hour requirements. And I might be overstepping here, but I think they’d disagree about their product being their time. They’d say that’s an element of their product, but the actual advice/documents/representation is the real product and what really matters.

        “Sharp dressing,” while again something I aspire to and in no way implies misplaced priorities, in these two women (one more than the other, from what I know) was one of many areas of detailed attention that did not really contribute to their doing a good job with their assignments.

    • I can see that someone who gets really caught up in the administrative work of submitting time might be missing the bigger picture of marketing, etc. However, it’s really short-sighted to let day-to-day time entry pile up; I got asked point-blank by a recruiter how late my longest outstanding timesheet was, because the hiring company wouldn’t accept a candidate with timesheets outstanding more than a certain amount of days. Plus, what a pain to have to spend your weekends recreating a week’s worth of work!

      Also, I treat my time entries as a “CYA” – I record the contents of important phone calls in which deadlines were set or clients made important decisions, I catalogue how many times I left a voicemail for a client before he returned my call, I chronicle the filing or FedEx’ing of important documents, or the day I received an important document, etc. There’s no way I’d remember these events if I waited a week before doing my time.

  9. Ouch, sexist much?

  10. Lana Lang :

    I use timers – our billing systems comes with them, so you can set them up on the side of your screen with the client/matter/project number and it then automatically uploads the time on that client’s file once you’ve approved it. I went through a long time not using it but the more matters I have on the more useful this is.

    I am like others – if I have a lot to do, I am much more efficient, and certainly get more done if I get into the office early, but recently I have been struggling to make myself get up that early. The later I work, the more I think I need the sleep in the morning…

    I love my To Do list. Instead of writing it out every day I have it as a running Word document which I print out every evening for the next day and then scribble on it throughout the day when new tasks come in. Then in the evening I update it for the next day, add new tasks, take out tasks I’ve done and leave in tasks that were there but I didn’t do. I’ve found this to be really useful as it means I don’t lose things from my list which are non-urgent but will eventually need to be done, whereas if I was writing it out by hand every day I would be more likely to accidentally miss something out.

    • Love your way of managing your “To Do List”. Not a lawyer, but I may be adopting this strategy.

    • Yeah, timers are built into our billing software as well. I´m surprised that´s not more common (the comments make it sound like few people have that available). It makes timekeeping very easy and precise, unless you forget to turn it on or off.

  11. Dallas lawyer :

    I’d hate to think the lawyer was telling you to pad your time. Consider this, though. When I have a call at 9:30 a.m., I’m seldom prepared to attend it by just dailing at 9:30. I check my calendar to confirm the time, I check my emails to see what we’re discussing, I pull my binders or documents that I need to reference, etc. Then, after the call, I write down follow up activities and to-do items and sometimes send a few follow up emails. So my “exactly 35 minute” conference call probably took at least 45 minutes of my attorney time. I think that time is 100% correctly billable.

    Just a thought. Maybe that helps.

    • What about cleaning off your desktop / email inbox at the end of the day? I usually end up spending at least a half hour or more of undifferentiated, unbillable time straightening up my computer at day’s end, plus time entry (if I am up for it, otherwise I do it first thing the next a.m., which sets the day off queer, somehow).

      • Ballerina girl :

        Not billable unless it’s reviewing emails specific to one client. That’s why I hate the billable hour system. That’s why I’m willing to take a huge pay cut to get out of the type of law where I do. Recording all your time is the worst.

      • I’ve been trying to make a point of cleaning up that stuff as I use it- that is, I don’t stop clocking time on the file until the docs are closed, emails are filed, and the paper file is put away. But I’m not that good at it, so it’s hit and miss.

      • Any law firm would tell you to bill this to “Office General” or “Admin.” Unless you are specifically dealing with records or filing for a particular client, this is time you eat. This is also a good lesson to get better at utilizing resources down the chain–paralegals, good secretaries. The paralegals likely bill, the secretaries likely do not, so hand down work that doesn’t impact your bottom line to someone who is cheaper and can handle it. It will help you get home that much faster, and your clients will be glad they are not paying an atty for such tasks.

        Also, very few law firms have a clean desk policy. Organize as you go (just manila folders and redwelds), and once a day or week, hand things to your assistant and tell her to scan, send to Records, etc. and your filing will be done all at once, instead of piecemeal, if you aren’t going to bill for it anyway. Get a system of codes or post-its to make it work. Also, send emails that need printing to your assistant so that the hard copies make it into records, or specifically flag documents as they come in that require additional handling–final versions, executed copies, emails that are records-worthy (if your firm doesn’t have a soft-copy system).

        My firm has an 85% of time billable target. I try to meet that on a monthly basis, and I am usually very close. I work at a firm that has a “don’t write time off” policy in that associates are not to make that sort of decision–it’s up to the partners. So I bill for what I work on, even if it takes longer than it should, and notify the partners of the extra length in what is called “pre-bill notes” which accompany the time entry. An example pre-bill note might be “courtesy write-off; client transition” I were having a meeting with colleague to hand over a client/matter because she was leaving the firm, for instance.

        • Anna Banana :

          My firm only cares about billables–I don’t even record nonbillable time unless it’s for a committee or something concrete (like CLEs). But each firm is different.

  12. I keep scrupulous minute-by-minute notes in a notepad, and then spend time once a week adding everything up and entering the time into the system. I have never felt comfortable using a ‘guesstimation’ because I just don’t have a good sense of how much time I spent unless I keep track. (I know, because I’m constantly surprised when I add up my time.)

    The biggest downside to being so scrupulous: it’s become a habit! I often find myself glancing at the clock when I start watching TV, talking to my husband, or cooking dinner — keeping track of my day in 6 minute increments — and (embarrassingly and sadly) at times actually writing down the time as if I were billing it before catching myself. Sigh.

    • This is why I stopped being quite as careful–I generally keep an eye on the time or use timers but I’m not clicking things off for little breaks.

    • I hate that I’ve started “timekeeping” my real life too! A friend said it makes her very jealous with her time – it’s so true. It makes traffic jams and long lines at the grocery store almost unbearable, and that obligatory monthly phone call with your unbearable relative who jabbers on about all her health ailments – horrible. I’ve done a good job of learning not to take my work home with me (figuratively only, of course), but I feel like I’m actually getting more and more impatient the longer I work in a field with billable hours.

      I sure hope we go to the flat-fee system that seems to make lawyers so jumpy. It would be amazing to just spend the time to get the project right, and not have to worry about meeting a magical goal number each week when things are slow.

      • Anonymous :

        I kept my time the same way when I worked at a firm; minute-by-minute on a notepad next to the phone. And after I left that job, it took a good two years before I could see certain times on the clock (8:06, 8:12, etc.) and not automatically think about billing.

  13. Ballerina girl :

    My rant about the billable hour system: everyone gets screwed. Clients get screwed because lawyers have an incentive to pad and/or be inefficient. Lawyers get screwed because their pay/performance reviews are tied to the amount of time spent in the office more than the quality of their work because time literally equals money to partners. It’s just such a dumb system.

    • happyness :

      HEAR, HEAR!!

    • I agree, but (we discussed this in several classes in law school) no one seems to have an alternative that would fit for more than just the most routine legal issues. (Flat fee for drafting a will, sure. Flat fee for your complex business dispute- eh, not so much.) I can’t count how many times I’ve started into some research, thinking it would just take a few minutes, only to find that it was a lot longer and more complicated than I could have anticipated. I’m not sure how to handle that, other than the billable.

      • Ballerina girl :

        Isn’t that just how most fields work, though? You estimate–sometimes you overshoot it, sometimes you undershoot it–that’s the risk that the firm/client take?

        • Dallas lawyer :

          But firms don’t want to take the risk. Right now, with billable hours, the risk is on the client, and that is how firms like it.
          AFAs are a tricky and very controversial subject. If you want to change the practice of law, you have to be ready to track RESULTS rather than hours. Because that is the only way AFAs are going to take hold. And that puts attorneys’ feet to the fire. It’s also difficult to do because how many times do you start into a case/deal and find out your client hasn’t been open with you and things cost 3x as much, down the road? The billable hour isn’t fun, but we provide a service, and service industries often bill by the hour.

          • Ballerina girl :

            Yeah, I hear you. And I get why they have it. But that is, I think, the reason why I will be leaving the billable hour workforce. The hours are just too long and I’m tired of thinking of my work that way.

  14. Liz (Europe) :

    I don’t think 10 hours for 8 billable is so strange, personally. Around here lawyers with several years of experience do +/- 65% to +/- 85% billable (some firms will say 95% billable but that just means they expect you to do more hours than officially allowed). That may just be a European thing, Brussels says there’s a max to how many hours people can work a week and obviously some professions need to be a bit more flexible about hours than that.
    Also, my office splits the Y mins it takes to prepare (and write down after) an activity from the X mins the activity takes. We bill both, but if you just bill that as X+Y mins for the activity and the client knows it didn’t take that long, the client will get upset; if you write it down the separate way they know what they’re paying for.

    But Corporette and shopping at work, really? I mean why does that need to happen at work? If you’re home earlier you can do that from home and not worry about the time, while wearing your favourite teddy bear slippers and drooling over that hot pink latex mini skirt (or other items you wouldn’t want your colleagues to see you order) as much as you want.

    • Um, because we’re human? And breaks are normal?

      • Next you’re going to try and tell me that it’s normal to stop to eat, too.

    • Because we’re at work all the time. :(

    • Lana Lang :

      “Brussels says there’s a max to how many hours people can work a week and obviously some professions need to be a bit more flexible about hours than that”

      Indeed – Big Law makes you contract out of the maximum working hours. What a shocker…

    • Another Sarah :

      Ahh, European productivity. There have been studies done where Europeans, who receive much more vacation time than Americans usually, are more productive during the actual day. Whereas Americans are more productive over the year. So the productivity is about equal, but Americans take the rest of the 4 weeks of vacation in 10-minute increments playing on the internet, while Europeans take theirs all at once, at the beach. 6 in one, 1/2 dozen in the other.

      Of course, this starts to break down once Americans pull 12- and 14- hour days…

      • Liz (Europe) :

        It’s my impression that you’re absolutely right in that, Another Sarah. I know Americans that have MSN on at work – not lawyers, but what the..? Forget lawyers, take civil servants over here: my mom, a single parent, used to get told off at work cuz I’d give her a 2-minute call each day when I’d get home from school (this was before mobile phones). Of course she and her colleagues were all gone at half past five, max. I briefly worked abroad in a similar civil servant type organisation (just to compare oranges strictly to oranges) and there it was tea and personal calls time all the time, but people went home very very late. Must admit, I thought it was rather more like a p!ssing contest over there, who goes home latest must surely be the most important to the company, yeah right… Most people there took care to reply to e-mails as much as possible in the morning when they just arrived and then just before leaving, just to show their presence and meanwhile they were playing computer games (!) for hours… Way to waste precious time, what a madhouse! I don’t know where the managers were looking… Most people there had their friends at work, too, not outside of it like the norm is here. Must *really* suck to get retired or lose a job over there…

    • Because at home I have a husband and a baby who need me 100% of the time. Sadly, my office is the most “personal space” I have.

      • Liz (Europe) :

        Yeah that’s why I’m thinking on au-pair options myself… (Not that I’m procreating just yet.)

  15. I swear by manictime (free) and thanks to corporette for telling me about it! While I may not put my time into our system daily, I keep track of my time in real time with manic time (wow that could be an ad.) Also, this may differ from firm to firm, but at my firm we can bill for our time writing our time entries. Each client requires a different format. So, I use manictime to track how long I spend doing my daily billables, and then I allocate across the clients I worked for that day. (Example, a half hour writing billing entries for 5 clients, I worked for equally, each will get .1 added to an entry to cover my time writing their entries.)

  16. How do you guys bill when you can re-use the work you have previously done for one client in a different case (with a different client)? I’m thinking about very specific research/drafting of contracts etc. I have a friend with much more work experience who believes that there’s no reason to let the second client get away more cheaply than the first one, and she says it also mitigates the fact that there’s always lots of work she can’t bill, so it’s only fair. Even though I sympathize to some degree, I think that it’s unethical to “double bill”, and that my previous experience should be reflected in my paycheck, not my billable hours. Am I just a naive baby lawyer?

    • lawyerette :

      You’re not, it’s absolutely unethical. I’m fairly certain we covered this in our ethics class. That’s the reason people hire certain lawyers: because they have experience and have done this type of thing before, that’s the reason we get to charge more per hour as we go up in experience. It’s built into that. Ask your friend whether if his client found out he doesn’t think he’d be fired.

    • WHOA no. I’m a youngin’ too, but do NOT double bill. If you update the research or modify to contract to fit, sure, bill for the time spent doing each of those items, but not for the entire creation of the document, which you technically did for another client.

    • Hey there!!! Do not go there! This is WAY wrong. You bill for how much time it took you to do the work, period. The “rationalization” for splitting due to “fairness” is just that–a rationalization. Clients hire firms because they expect that there is repeatable work product–don’t charge your clients for work you didn’t do specifically for them. It’s not even grey–this is a black and white DO NOT DO THAT!

  17. I LOVE talking about efficiency and time management! One of my favorite thinkers on the topic is Merlin Mann, who has a great blog called 43 Folders (http://www.43folders.com/). He has an even better talk about taming your inbox called “Inbox Zero” that changed my “email” life (http://inboxzero.com/video/). Most of his work is based on that of David Allen’s, who wrote a book called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

    I’m not an attorney (project manager at a web design firm), but we do bill time to clients. I use a program called Billings (http://www.marketcircle.com/billings/). It’s really flexible so you can use it in several different ways, but I like that I can create a slip for each client and then turn them on or off depending on whose project I’m working on. It’s given me the freedom to take breaks when I want to because if I’m getting tired, I can just turn off my timers and I’m completely free.

  18. I generally try to bill at least 90% of the time that I’m actually in the office. My attitude is that if it’s not billable, I probably shouldn’t be doing it at work. So, if my secretary can handle something, I usually ask her to do so. I also work through lunch since that’s the culture at our firm. Lastly, I try to make any personal calls (i.e. setting up appointments) during my commute.

  19. divaliscious11 :

    I haven’t read any of the responses but I can tell you if I ever received a bill for 5.9 hours for “organizing files”, not only would it not be paid, but you wouldn’t be permitted to work on my matters any more. But being very descriptive and explicit gets bills paid. Generalities usually result in the entry being flagged for further review/explanation.

    • The tough one for me is making signature page packages for a closing. Takes a huge amount of time (especially if it´s a monster transaction with 30+ entities signing) and is very hard to describe in a way that sounds worthwhile. The only thing that helps is that many in-house counsel did that work themselves as associates at law firms, so they understand…

      • I HATE signature page packages! My supervisor always expects this to “just take a few minutes” and gets mad at me if I don’t pass it off to a paralegal, but inevitably the paralegal (all of our paralegals are fantastic, not a criticism of them in any way) hasn’t been working on the project and misses pages or doesn’t catch a misspelling of someone’s name, and then I have to review and redo everything…and it always takes hours. And then my supervisor gets upset that it’s taking so long, and he steps in to micromanage, and suddenly we’re thousands of dollars into a signature page packet and it’s so stressful. Hands down, one of the worst parts of my job.

        Plus, my clients generally don’t have in-house counsel, which makes billing so much worse.

    • Agree. But a lot of the most time-consuming tasks sound the most worthless. “Organizing files” HAS to be done, it HAS to be done by me, and I don’t do it for fun–it’s purely for the client. Ergo, I need a better description. Maybe it’ll get written off, maybe it won’t, but I get paid according to the hours I bill, so I sure as hell am going to find a way to write it down.

      • Dallas lawyer :

        Describe what you do more precisely. E.g. “create notebook of relevant materials for xx hearing” or “order drafts by date for future use in creating comparisons…”

      • I am struggling to find a better description for “looking for sh*t my predecessor didn’t file very well” – I’m in a high turnover job, and inherited a lot of files, and I spend so much time looking for that memo so-and-so drafted, or finding that half-done closing book for that two-year-old transaction, or finding that one e-mail in the stack of printed out e-mails to see if this provision was drafted correctly. I bill for it (sometimes it take 2+ hours), but lord help me if anyone ever challenges me descriptions.

        I feel like litigators have an easier time with billing – it’s acceptable for them to “review the client file” or “put together a document book for X hearing.” Transactional attorneys often don’t have much of a tangible work product, and a lot of our work is never seen outside of the firm.

        • This. My biggest problem is with my one corporate client. It is SO much harder to bill that stuff than litigation, which stinks because I’m the only associate with a corporate client (everyone else is 100% litigation, while I’m about 60/40% corporate/litigation) and my hours get compared to everyone else’s. I spent almost an entire 40-hour week doing nothing but going through all my predecessor’s files, figuring out what they were, labeling them, and re-filing. Couldn’t bill a dime of it.

          • How about “review and analyze file in order to identify key documents to be utilized during drafting of x document/transaction so as to most efficiently accomplish same.”

        • This. Plus, “shifting awkwardly from foot to foot while boss types an email and mumbles under her breath, because she told me to stick around to discuss something once she’s done” or “attaching documents to emails for technologically incompetent partner.” I can’t tell you how much of my time gets sucked up by nonsense like this, but I can’t ever write that. Then they tell me I don’t bill enough for the amount of time I spend in the office. Luckily we don’t have actual minimum requirements.

  20. I have worked at several firms, and I know (from having worked in house as well) that pressure to provide super-efficient legal work is real. However, you need to use your judgment (and this comes with time) when something (i) takes longer than it should (ii) was outside the scope of the assignment but had bearing and that’s why something took longer or (iii) took longer because you were learning, researching, etc. Some research for the client’s benefit is normal, lots of research because you have no idea how to proceed is not.

    If there’s pressure to bad your bills because that’s the firm culture, ask yourself how you’d feel lying to your client’s face, because that’s what an inflated bill is–a lie. I worked at a firm like that, and I hated every minute of being judged against slowpoke, lying/bill-padding colleagues. I am now at a firm where we are supposed to bill what’s right and no more, and I sleep a lot better for it.

    If you have a partner telling you to bill more, that’s his or her way of saying that he or she wants your billables up. Solve the problem by doing more work (at the right pace, honestly) rather than ratcheting up time entries.

    I once has a partner tell me that “if your timesheets are honest and contain good descriptions, you’ve nothing to hide, and you can explain anything to anyone without a big of shame.” It’s true. Don’t engage in timesheet manipulation to please higher-ups. You’ll be able to hold your head higher, with a clear conscience, later.

  21. * pad your bills, not “bad your bills”! Whoops!

  22. Helen Reddy :

    I was big on “receive, review, and analyze” correspondence and depos. Also, any billable event with the actual client on the telephone or in person was accurate to the nanosecond or under-billed. And I agree with the above poster than paying for “analyzing files” is a no go. Head high, clear conscience is the way to go.

    I work with the federal government now and we don’t need to do this. It is so much happier this way.

  23. Great discussion, but it seems that Corporette attracts a different kind of lawyer than the kind I’ve worked with in practice. I cannot tell you the number of senior lawyers I’ve worked with/for (including counsel, partners) who don’t “technically” pad the bill but do things like (1) call me in and sit with me while we mark up a document from front to end (I had already been working a few years at the time, so not baby lawyer), which can take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, (2) spend excruciating amounts of time reading and re-reading disclosure (I know that some would argue this is good lawyering, but I question the usefulness of a partner spending 5-10 hours reading a prospectus from front to end for the 9th or 15th time), and (3) call me in to “discuss” a research question, have me in the office for 1+ hours (all billed because I’m there), but during that hour, spend 10 minutes looking for a document, 5 minutes on a personal call, 15 minutes shooting the breeze, etc…

    These are all people who are very proud of the large number of hours they bill. Face it, we are in an industry that rewards inefficiency.

    • Wow, so that’s how they get all those hours! I see the hours others (mostly biglaw folk) post, and think, how in the world do that DO that? My brain hurts after an honest 8-hour billed day. But maybe that’s because I actually WORKED all 8 of those hours, and it took me 10 or more hours to do it.

      • Yeah, this is explaining a lot about why my mid-size firm ends up billing so much less than certain big firms for the same work done.

    • Yup, all those things happen on a daily basis. Or the partner stands outside your door while another partner discusses work with you, and you later notice that the entire 20+ minutes that partner waited has been billed to the client.

      To be fair, I notice this much more when work is slow – when there is work spilling off a partner’s desk, efficiency becomes important because otherwise he’d be at work 24-7.

  24. Another Laura :

    What do you folks do about keeping productivity and focus with interruptions? I’m not in law but am at a fairly senior level with six direct reports. I try to use the Pomodoro Technique but the phone will ring and it will be Client A or Lawyer B or my boss and I have to answer – either because I’ve been waiting hours for the person to call me back or because, in the case of my boss, it’s because he needs me now, not when I finish my Pomodoro Technique’s 25 minutes. Not to mention direct reports popping in to ask questions…I can’t have my door closed all the time. Then it’s hard to get back into what I was doing. I think I read a study that said it takes one 20 minutes to get back into something after an interruption. Ideas?

    • When my supervisor is being a supervisor, he manages in-person interruptions by scheduling times to check in on projects – “Look at this for an hour and discuss with me at X o’clock.” It’s good for both of us, because then I know my deadline.

      A phone trick is if you have an assistant, send all your phone calls to her (or him, possibly). My assistant is great about pulling me out of a meeting for that one important call, but taking messages from all the other callers. Or – just send all your calls to voicemail. Rarely does anything blow up in the 25 minutes it will take you to check your voicemail. If it’s your boss and it’s urgent, he or she will find a way to find you.

  25. Anonymous :

    Just chiming in to say that all of this advice is invaluable, I didn’t really have this input when I started out and didn’t know to ask. I didn’t really have a plan for handling the day to day until I was swamped. I’m not intrinsically an organized person so I have to work at it.

  26. I agree – I even wish this would be reposted as a weekend open thread to generate more comments.

  27. Farno Farno :

    Interestingly, I took one of my file-handlers out to lunch recently. He informed me that his new “priority” at his company is to review all the legal bills and to cut 5-10% of every bill, no matter what. After so informing me, he flat out told me to make sure I pad my bills by that much in order to ensure that I get paid for the work I actually DO.

    So, for every discussion about how padding bills is unethical (which it is), I chuckle to myself when the client himself is actually telling me that we need to do it in order to get paid for work that we legitimately performed.

  28. I am in solo practice, having been in practice 28 years with all size firms and a solo for 11 years. I have used some form of real time billing for the last 20 years. Right now I use PCLaw. I have also used Timeslips. PCLaw isn;t perfect, but works ok. I also cross check against my emails at billing time, to be sure I didn;t miss anything. I am most likely to miss recording time on a weekend. I try keep my time entries so that little editing is required for the bills. Clients seem to study bills with more intensity than devoted to any other written output. For that reason, I am very careful how the bill reads. “Drafting memo, drafting memo.” entries will make a client crazy. Better to say drafting jurisdictional portion of memo, drafting executive summary….” I also record who initiated a call or request. For example, “telephone call from Lord Hight Admiral”, rather than “with LHA” . Or, drafted memo regarding the application of the law of Guam to the internet at the Lord High Admiral’s request. Less likely to be challenged. I record all time, but if something is frankly secretarial “scheduled conference call” I show it as a no charge item. Some have commented that time should never be in round nunbers. It is what it is, and I think that those who audit lawyer bills view absence of round numbers as statistically weird. I do certain types of projects on a flat fee. They are projects that I have a good basis for estimating, and that I do enough of so that there is a cross insurance effect — some will come in a little over, some a little under flat fee. I am also very careful in the terms of engagement for flat fee projects. I also believe in showing all time at hourly rate (450), then showing any discounts, so clients don’t forget they enjoyed a discounted rate.

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