Discovering your true worth

Michael Robinson looks at the benefits of a dedicated time recording system

In the future, all fee-earning staff will produce on-line draft bills. Although the billing software is still at a prototype stage, the working systems of fee earning staff for both time recording and billing will eventually change with the new technology.

Effective and efficient time recording and billing are a basic requirement of any legal practice and one application to which the client is likely to give the closest scrutiny.

It is essential that a system is user-friendly. If staff cannot or will not use the package no amount of sophisticated hi-tech wizardry will help keep up your profitability.

Integration is another essential factor for a successful system. The Windows environment has facilitated integrated systems across a range of system sizes because it aims at standardising the look and feel of the operating system. This certainly aided the introduction of our computer system to the fee-earning environment.

Finally, in an integrated system, the billing and time recording software you choose will depend upon the accounting system you have and the choice of one must be closely considered in conjunction with the needs of the other.

Most firms' criteria for choosing software are that it must be PC-based, work within the Windows environment and be user-friendly. The software chosen by this firm was still in the development stage, but had potential for providing access to all accounting functions, including client statistics, work in progress, disbursements and client accounts. We were in the fortunate position of being able to include ideas in the new software which was bench tested by fee earners before we agreed to accept it.

If the bill is simple – in other words one client matter worked on by only one staff member – then the software is simple to use and works well. However, for complex bills there can be a problem with apportioning time and fees. These problems are currently being addressed.

The benefits of a dedicated time recording package are numerous: time recording is a chore, automation makes it more enjoyable; time is posted more quickly and is recorded more accurately rather than 'made up' later – memory is not infallible; there is less re-billing due to late or lost time sheets, and more time is recorded – 10-15 minutes extra per day – because staff are more likely to underestimate, not over-estimate, time spent on a file; and fee earners are free to spend more time on fee earning work.

Attitudes and working practices must change quickly to take full advantage of the new system.

The keys to successful staff training are:

– Preparing a training strategy for the firm to ensure that everyone has a standardised and comprehensive training.

– Do not give out all the software packages available at once as this is simply confusing. Instead build up enthusiasm and anticipation.

– Arrange training sessions to suit users' requirements and timetables.

– Include some fun features in the software such as a daily time target graph.

– One-to-one training is more effective than group sessions and saves time in the long run.

– Keep training sessions informal to avoid intimidating staff, but ensure all staff attend the sessions relevant to them.

– Use enthusiastic 'champions' to promote the system to other staff – as with most services, personal recommendation is the best form of advertising.

– Try to combine encouragement and bullying in the right proportions.

As all the firm's income is generated by fee earners, it is important that they like and use the system. Our accounts department is already using the billing software and finds it superior to the previous system.

The new software retains the old bill details and allows for multiple re-edits and updates which the old system did not.

Although there is some resistance to the idea of fee earners being able to produce their own draft bills on-line, once this is in common practice both fee earning and administrative staff will appreciate the time-saving aspects that the system allows.

The bottom line is that on-line time recording and billing software saves staff time, and enables them to bill more time – 60 fee earners recording five minutes extra at £80 per hour for 250 days of the year equals £100,000 per annum. The option to charge or not charge this time is at the discretion of the firm. It produces bills quicker and produces more accurate and informative bills.

Fee earning staff are enthusiastic about the time recording functions on the system and the accounts department has seen positive improvements with the introduction of the billing software. Bills presented to clients are a clear representation of the work we have carried out on their behalf and answering billing enquiries is simplified. At the end of the day, the software improves the firm's cashflow and profitability.

Michael Robinson is director of IT at Bevan Ashford.