New lawyers and mentors: Focus early on developing good timekeeping habits.
As someone who spends a couple of hours a week mentoring, I have the privilege of getting intimate insight into younger lawyers’ struggles. While the faces and the firms and other facts may change, common themes often arise. Lucky for us both, this helps me provide useful advice for you.
Law firms often miss the mark — presuming they spend any time at all mentoring young associates — with timekeeping. Instead of teaching associates the why and how of timekeeping from the start, the conversation seems to happen only when associates don’t make their hours. By then, bad timekeeping habits are already ingrained.
While I must insert a disclaimer that this may not work for everyone (I am a lawyer after all), here are my personal timekeeping tips for brand-new lawyers.
This is huge. A common mistake many young lawyers make is to simply do the work as they receive it, bill it, and hope they make it to their annual goal of 1,900 or 2,000 hours (or whatever it may be).
As the saying goes, hope is not a strategy. This passive approach, while common, is limiting.
Some young lawyers set a monthly goal. While this is better than focusing solely on the annual goal, my tip is to figure out your weekly and daily goals. Because by the time you realize that you’re behind a month or two, there may not be enough time or billable work to meet the annual requirement. The worst common example I see is associates who don’t realize they need more work until it’s October — when work can naturally slow down for the November and December holidays.
Perhaps this is easier with a specific example.
When I was in private practice, my goal was 1,900 hours. If I wanted a bonus, I needed at least 2,000 hours. So, I divided 2,000 hours by 50 weeks (presuming there were probably two weeks of time off or slow time due to holidays). This gave me a weekly goal of 40 billable hours a week, or 8 hours a day. While I wouldn’t stress if I didn’t meet my daily goal (which meant I actually worked 10 to 12 hours a day, especially before I learned to be efficient), it sometimes gave me the motivation to work just a bit longer to get it in (if I had the work). It meant less stress later if I could build a little cushion.
More importantly, however, this system gave me more visibility into where I was at any given time, and a bit more control. I knew when I could take my foot off the pedal and when to press harder and ask for more work.
While law firms usually have timekeeping systems, it’s important to create a system that works for you. And while there is flexibility and your system may change over time, the reality is that habits form quickly. It’s important to be intentional about how you want to do this from the very beginning.
For me, I am more analog than digital. The firm had a timekeeping system with an electronic timer, but I am naturally a note-taker. In fact, I still have a physical paper planner (in addition to my electronic calendar). In law school, I was a person who preferred to hand-write notes, transcribe them digitally, print them and then review and highlight. I share all these details to emphasize that it’s important to recognize your preference.
So my system was to jot down my time daily on a sticky note: (1) shorthand for the matter, (2) the task, (3) time start and (4) time end in one row.
It might look something like this:
Some days I had a lot of little entries because I kept getting interrupted. Other days, it was just doc review or research or a summary judgment all day long for one matter. But regardless of the entries, I’d enter in my billable time at the end of the day, every day — right before I made my to-do list for the next day.
Daily might not work for everyone, but I found it too difficult to remember what I did yesterday, much less on Monday. It was also nice to not have to delay my weekend while I tried to remember what I did over the past week to input my time like others I’d pass on my way out of the office.
The sticky note was also intentional. It was easy to jot down the time I stopped a task, close my laptop in a rush and stick the sticky note on my laptop before putting it in my purse if I had to rush out the door. I would input my time before bed. Again, do what works for you — whether that is a notepad, an electronic timer or recording voice memos.
I still keep track of my time in-house (because I want to, not have to) and I love Timeular for the data reporting.
I know why young lawyers do it, but please don’t under-report your time. You may feel bad for taking so long and not want to charge the client, but let the partners handle that when they review the bills. I also know you are trying to manage up and don’t want your partner to know how inefficient you may be as a brand-new lawyer. But if you hide the truth from your partner (even with good intentions), they won’t know there’s a problem to address.
Also, you are depriving yourself of learning to be better — which means your bad habits may worsen and be more difficult to correct.
This is more of a reminder than a tip, but: Cut yourself some slack. It’s called the practice of law for a reason. Timekeeping and billing are a strange part of law practice and, in many ways, the bane of our existence.
As with any part of our practice, there are ways to work smarter, not harder.
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