Sticks and Carrots for Time Sheet Compliance

In the highly publicized case a few months back involving allegedly falsified time sheets, the consensus seems to have been that this sort of lapse raises questions about character. The hullabaloo over time sheets led to recent speculation involving the monitoring of time sheets in general. Apparently the big concern for law firm adminstrators is getting time sheets in on time. Tardy time sheets are an issue that many firms struggle with.  This has less to do with character and more to do with priorities. 

Question: do lawyers, the hard-working, highly autonomous professionals that they are, need someone to chase them down for these records? If so, why do they need to be policed when it comes to what might be seen as such a simple task? 

Smart WebParts, a blog by a company that deals with timekeeping for the likes of law firms, recently posted a few scribbles on the topic. 

First things first.  Constructing billable hours is a crucial part of a law firm’s overall success. “[Although] attorneys find it painful to record their time, it’s essential to the business process,” says Todd Gerstein, CEO & Founder, Smart WebParts.  Gerstein (pictured here) explains that, even with a crystal-clear timekeeping policy, there will still be need for an “enforcer”…someone who hunts lawyers down until they turn in their billable hours. 

Gerstein claims it’s due to the culture, and behavior factors.  Everyone in the environment has to understand that billable hours are important. And: “It’s not that…attorneys don’t want to submit their timesheets on time,” he explains.  “It’s that their behavior is based on a sense of what’s most important.  For whatever reason, those who consistently turn in late timesheets have decided that on-schedule timesheets are not important.”

That situation segues into sticks and carrots. A few sticks Gerstein has seen work in two Big Law firms include pay cuts; turning off the tardy timekeeper’s computer (until he or she completes the required timesheets), and cancelling direct deposit for a period of six months. The latter forces the culprit to report to the managing partner’s office to pick up his or her pay check.

Here’s the protocol as outlined in the Simpson Thatcher Policy Handbook. First, the firm goes into how important timely turned-in time sheets are, as they “directly impact…the firm’s ability to administer work assignments and to bill clients on a timely basis.”  Then it lays down the law. “If the lawyer is missing ten business days of diaries prior to any payroll date, the lawyer’s gross salary will be reduced by twenty percent.”

Hughes Hubbard’s policy is similar, with 5% being cut for five missed days of billable hours, and 10% for the second infraction.  Twenty percent will be deducted for the third instance.  (Incidentally, there is no retroactive restoration unless there are “unusual” circumstances.)    

The carrots approach used by other firms such as Brown Rudnick include being eligible to win one of 24 iPads.  (The timekeeper has to attend an Effective Billing Practices training, as well.)

Gerstein concludes that you have to appraise what sort of culture your firm has before offering any sort of deterrent or buy-in. You also have to acknowledge that there’s no way around the fact that time keeping is never going to be one of an attorney’s favorite things to do. Acknowledging that will go a long way.  “Anything you can do to…attempt to reduce their pain,” says Gerstein, will help. “Whichever path you go down….embrace it at every level and [remain] consistent regarding expectations and enforcement.”  For more go to:  http://blog.smart-webparts.com/      

-EM

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