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I use timers to keep track of my billable hours, but many senior associates and partners have told me that they just estimate their time. What’s the best method? How do you even accurately estimate?

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This is a great topic of discussion. I have used timers since I was a summer associate (I am currently a mid-level in NYC). I absolutely feel that I am in the minority with my time-keeping methods and practices. I know maybe two lawyers in my mid-sized firm who also use timers. Everyone else seems to “find the time” at the end of each day, listing each project on which they worked and allocating hours in a way that makes sense and will not raise flags. If you use this “estimation” method, then, in my experience, most days you should be able to bill 7-8 hours and leave the office at a reasonable time (provided, of course, that you have a pool of work to which to allocate hours). The reality is that for most strict timekeepers like me, the billable hour is a slog. There are simply too many distractions — downtime, time to clear your mind and think through a tough issue without time pressure, social chit-chat, non-billable file maintenance, etc. — to ethically bill 8 hours a day with consistent efficiency. (Not to mention the effects of burnout on productivity; but that is an issue for another day.) I am not the most efficient associate, and I could definitely do more to focus, but on average I need 11-12 hours to bill a strict, clean, ethical 8 hours. And I do not think that a 70-80% efficiency rate is unreasonable; in fact I think that it is realistic. At the beginning of my career, I thought that there was something noble about working such crazy hours. Now, I feel like a dope when the other lawyers leave the office at 6:30 p.m. after having guesstimated 9 billables, while I have another 3-4 hours left in the office to hit my daily budget. I feel that my timekeeping methods are wearing me down and holding me back; these methods just do not seem sustainable long-term. But, what is the alternative? Guesstimate and very likely overcharge the client? I have considered lateraling to a flat-fee boutique in large part to escape the clutches of the billable hour and change the goalposts a bit. After a few years at a big firm, the notion of the billable hour seems absurd to me: the firm is evaluating attorney productivity on the basis of an entirely malleable standard with virtually no oversight, and incentives to juice-up the numbers. Many lawyers complain about the grueling hours — and justifiably so, I think, because we do work hard. At the same time, though, most people seem to be “making it up” as they go along to meet whatever goal they have. A bit of a contradiction there.

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I really appreciate your emphasis on ethics here. It took me way too long to realize that I'm not woefully inefficient, I'm just honest about my time. 70% efficiency is empirically typical and decreases as firm resources do. It sucks that it's basically pick between burnout or unethical billing, but until minimum billables are brought down to a reasonable level, them's the breaks...

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A vast amount of lawyers inflate their time entries in order to meet billables. “Estimating” is likely a coded way of saying “I make them up as long as it seems reasonable.” Personally, I check the time on my computer before I start a task and when I finish, then enter my time. I probably miss by a few minutes either way fairly often, but I figure it all events out in the end.

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Some automatic timers hurt attorneys with the way it rounds your time. Best to keep a running sheet and manually calculate. Not the same as guessing, you write down stop and start time. 11-12 hours in the office for 8 billable hours is too high. As a mid-senior level associate, I usually only have an hour of down time in my day and all other work is billable.

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But if you’re doing firm management or guidance, there should be non billable numbers to track that.

I use timers, and I have the same issues that the posters above have with spending 11-12 hours for 8 billables. After 9 hours at the office, I can pull up the “planner” view for my time program and it looks like I’ve worked nearly continuously all day, but I’m still somehow missing 30% of my time. Advice I got from a senior associate recently (not related specifically to the timer) is to be more holistic in your billing. You are billing for time spent on the case, not for a particular work product. If you are in the middle of drafting a motion and get up to get a coffee or go to the bathroom, are you still thinking about the case / working through your analysis / thinking about strategy? If so, you should be capturing that time and writing your time entries accurately to reflect it—include “analyzing,” etc., not just drafting. I’ll frequently leave my timer running, and if I get side tracked and start chatting, I fix it when I get back to my desk. This has helped, but still not enough.

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I trust this is a sarcastic remark. Clients don’t pay for you to get a cup of coffee. Just turn off the timer. If we don’t act honestly on keeping time and billing, what else are we not doing that we should? Be fair to your, but just as important show your own pride by being honest. It is too hard a job, and our careers too long, to mess with our own heads.

No question use timer. Not only is is fairer, but studies have shown that use of timers increases recorded time by 20%. The difference is that it is charged where you actually do the work. Also, my firm has a program that actually captures the time spent on individual emails, documents and phone calls, so you can compare to the timer to make sure you turned it on and off.

likeupliftinghelpful

We also now have Cisco Jabber on our cell phones. This means I get the same ability to capture length of calls made or received when I use my cell. One more reason to be accurate. Another factor is the round up to one tenth. I find that with this approach I know if those three emails I sent really totaled one tenth of the three tenths the system may suggest as individual units.

I use a timer but I notice that no partner actually keeps track of their time. Most of them estimate based on emails/work product.

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Anyone who "estimates" time is completely making it up. How could you possibly remember every task you do in a day? I have a notepad at my desk that I just write start/stop time for each task as I go. Takes a split second between tasks and I always have an exact record of my time.

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This whole thread is the story of my life. I manage to work like crazy and always seem to be behind on billable hours.

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I just look at what time I start and what time I finish, and correlate that to the right tenth. The timers are too many extra movements for me.

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I tried to use timers but it just didn’t work for me. I kept forgetting to start and stop when I was shifting between tasks, and on a few occasions left a timer running overnight because I forgot to hit stop. Just wasn’t a workable option for me. I keep a draft email open with all of my active matters listed and as I work on a matter I jot down start/stop times under the relevant matter. Each morning I come in early to calculate my time (convert start/stop time to minutes and 1/10ths of an hour) and I go through my email for the prior day to make sure I didn’t forget anything and adjust for any interruptions that I didn’t already account for. (I also use this time to put my to do list for the day together; going through the prior day is helpful.). This is the system that works for me and I think it is honest and ethical, while not as “precise” as timers (when they are used effectively).

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Don’t use the timers. Try to record your time manually and contemporaneously throughout the day and try not to take a break without jotting your time down first. I get that ethics is important, but if you feel like the timers are not capturing all of your time, you are likely right and are likely under billing the client. This is no more ethical than over-billing because you are costing the firm money. Clients know or should know that they are paying humans—not robots to do the work. You are relying too much on automation to record your time. Do the best you can to capture the hours you worked, even if it requires some “estimation.”

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I started using timers because I kept missing things when I just estimated at the end of the day. Fully in favor of them. My billables have actually ticked up due to using timers (because I am otherwise crap at estimating).

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I use a software timer on my laptop and it reduces a lot of the mental work required to memorize or calculate my time. It seems to work well for me.

I use timers for smaller task and for larger task like motions I write down the start time and end time and then estimate subtractions for things like going to the bathroom or if I went to pick up something to eat.

I used to hand-write notes to keep track but that's annoying to carry around in order to enter billing. So now I email myself notes while working (which client/case, task, length of time). I usually enter billing later by going through my email later so I'm not taking my focus away from the work itself during the day.

Estimate. You bill a lot more than you realize.

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