Within the past month, Loretta Ruppert did a guest post on lawyers tracking all of their billable and non-billble time ("Tracking the Zero Dollar Hour"), and I posted my (somewhat) contrary opinion in a response post, "Is Tracking Time a Waste of Time?" After my post appeared, a reader commented about web-based time trackingt tool Toggl and provided a link to another, similar tool, Time Doctor. Actually, that link was to a blog post on Time Doctor's site about why most time tracking software is flawed. Here are some direct quotes from that post:
An example, if a person is working on a particular task, and they decide to start chatting on Facebook instead of the task they’ve specified, Time Doctor will ask the person if they are actually working. Features like this reduces the amount of personal Internet use at work.
If a worker stops using their computer, Time Doctor will, after a while, automatically stop tracking time – breaks, as well as time spent working, are tracked to the minute (although, users can still track time spent off the computer at the click of a button).
Time Doctor will also remind the person when they come back to the computer to start tracking time again, as well as asking what task they are working on. Everything is tracked in real time and it is impossible to allocate two activities to the same time slot (even when adding time manually). It even works when there is no Internet connection available.
The reality is that lawyers do a lot of work that cannot be tracked this way. What happens if the lawyer needs to work in several different applications at once? Preparing a brief or motion papers may require the lawyer to work in a word processing program and use the internet for legal research at the same time. And there is significant work that is done by lawyers that would always need to be entered manually - time spent with clients, on the telephone, in court, in meetings, etc.
But none of that gets to the real point, which is: is this really how we want lawyers to work? Doesn't this seem a bit like "Big Brother?" Can you imagine being interrupted by your computer asking you if you are really working? (especially if you're on Facebook "chatting" with a client or researching something for a pending case) It might reduce personal internet use in some circumstances, but I imagine that for most professionals who genuinely work hard and want to do a good job, it would breed resentment - and might even waste additional time by constantly interrupting their work.
Lawyers are knowledge workers, not robots. To do their best work, lawyers need to have the autonomy and freedom to think creatively and to come up with new solutions and arguments for their clients - to solve problems in ways that both sides of a transaction will accept. Does this kind of activity tracking promote that kind of thinking? Does it encourage lawyers to do their best work? I don't think so, and that opinion seems to be backed up by studies like those referenced in Daniel Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
(And by the way, I find it interesting that the same individuals who claim that law is a noble profession that shouldn't be 'debased' by discussions about marketing or law as a business are the ones who are the most adamant about keeping very tight controls on their associates and other staff -- if law is a noble profession, why not treat your employees like professionals? But I digress...)
In addition to the comment mentioned above, I also received a private email from an individual working for a software company that developed similar activity-tracking software for engineers. He wanted to know whether I thought the program could be applied to lawyers as well. Here is my response (items in brackets were edited or added for this post):
It sounds as if your product is similar to some other products already in use in the legal arena (Chrometa is one example), and it might be of interest to many lawyers who need to track their time for billing purposes, but I am generally not in favor of this kind of tracking if it isn’t necessary (i.e. if the court or the client does not require it). It can feel a bit “Big Brother”-ish and it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. I think that in the long run, it hurts rather than helps productivity and it kills innovation and creative thinking, which are the real value that knowledge workers like lawyers and other professionals bring to the table.
Although there are lots of things that go on within a law firm that are duplicated and could benefit from faster production, I’m not sure that these kinds of benchmarks would be that helpful – the general document creation for those kinds of things is often done with document generating software or form tools and it is unlikely that tracking the time to complete those first drafts would make much of a difference in light of the technology being used. [And in other circumstances, the main drafting work for hourly billing lawyers is non-billable and is performed initially by support staff. In still others, the problem has more to do with workflow and management than the time spent on the document itself].
To my mind, the real value of [documents created by lawyers for clients is not the document itself, but the lawyer's understanding of] the client’s situation and [the customization of] the documents to the client’s unique needs – and I don’t see these kinds of programs being much help there, either. First of all, a lot of what goes into that kind of work isn’t done on a computer in any way that could be accurately tracked; some of it has to do with relationship building with clients, listening skills and time spent with a client. Secondly, since each client’s situation is different, it would be hard to establish any kind of meaningful benchmarks – tracking these things might lead to a lesser quality output if a lawyer was concerned about spending “too much” non-billable time with a client.
I'm not trying to bash these kinds of software programs - I just think we need to stop and think about what kind of future we're creating for our profession and what we want to focus on.
Of course, I realize that some lawyers are stuck with hourly billing because the courts and the judges often still require time records when they set fees or make fee awards, and some well-paying clients refuse to accept any kind of law firm billing that isn't hourly. In those instances, some of these software programs could be helpful - particularly for capturing things that many attorneys forget to bill, like emails (especially when those emails are sent from a smartphone or other computer that isn't part of the office computer network). And I'm sure they would help the firms that bill hourly and have some lawyers who refuse to enter their time contemporaneously, so it's anybody's guess whether their time entries are accurate or not.
I'll even concede that on a short term basis, these programs might help make some productivity gains. But as a long term, permanent solution? I don't think so.
And even for hourly billers, these programs can cost more time than they save - as one lawyer put it: "I did a trial of [one of these auto-tracking software programs] a few years ago. Since it tracks every phone call and every email, it took a lot of time to sort through the information and delete the non-billable communication. I felt that I was spending more time "training" the program that it was benefiting me."
What do YOU think about auto-tracking software for lawyers? Leave a comment and let me know.