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 Barbara L. Liss

By: BARBARA L. LISS (Guest Blogger)

As a paralegal manager, I often encountered paralegals who regarded their time entries as though once recorded, they disappeared into the black hole of Calcutta never to be seen or heard from again.  Some legal assistants view billing time as an anathema, an excruciating experience to be avoided at all costs, and when unavoidable, to be given little or no serious consideration with regard to composition, tenor or readability.  The task of preparing time entries is often viewed as a painful but necessary burden that is somehow less important than the work that is being billed, to be done only when no other assignments are immediately pressing.  (And when is that, really?)

Many think that billing time operates much like a one way street; to be recorded and quickly forgotten.  When dealing with people who think of billing their time this way I remind them that to the contrary, recording our billable time is amongst the most important writing we will ever author.

Time entries are our most common form of communication with our clients and employers.  We tell them not only the nature of the work we have undertaken and why it important, but also by virtue of how we couch our time records we inform about how sophisticated we and the work we perform are. 

This is our golden opportunity to create and reinforce perceptions that we (as paralegals and as a part of the legal team representing them) are astute, capable, industrious and trustworthy.  We tell them about how knowledgeable we are about their cases and the work we do in their behalf.  We also communicate to clients the benefit of getting high quality legal work at a lower charge than had an attorney performed the same services, which would have had to happen if we were not present to do it instead. At the same time, we remind the attorneys who review the time entries that they didn’t have to do the work and therefore were freed to perform other billable assignments.   We tell these truths repeatedly with every carefully considered synopsis of work performed that we compose.

Another often overlooked aspect of why we must be vigilant in our time entries is that before the clients ever see a bill containing some reference to work we have done for them, it has been scrutinized by a billing partner or supervisor who has in some measure been responsible for assigning tasks to paralegals.  This affords us the opportunity to keep the lawyers with whom we work fully apprised of the contributions we make to the office’s overall success.  It reinforces for the attorneys that we participate in a substantive, meaningful way.

I believe that time entries are power.  People may form opinions about how productive we are based on subjective observation, but hard numbers are hard to argue with.  Maintaining a practice of timely submission of time entries creates a veritable fountain of information about how valuable legal assistants are.  It provides a description of what we do, how long it takes us, how much time a lawyer didn’t have to spend doing those tasks and how much money the firm made by virtue of our effort. Aggregating that information provides a strong foundation for negotiating with our employers about benefits and compensation.  While it is true that the real measure of our worth must be taken from an examination of both the quantity of work performed and the quality delivered, time entries speak volumes in regard to productivity.

To amplify the usefulness of our time entries, we must be aware of the impact they can have and knowing that, employ them to our best advantage.  This calls on paralegals to develop the habit of submitting time entries regularly and timely.  No matter how well our work is appreciated, if our billable time goes in after the cutoff date for submission, it makes a late billing necessary or the office will be confronted with the uncomfortable task of explaining to a client why another bill is required.  I’ve seen lawyers who, rather than face that alternative, write off otherwise perfectly billable paralegal time.  This is one of the greatest administrative crimes paralegals bring about, particularly because it is very avoidable.

When legal assistants complain to me about their inability to accurately reconstitute how their time has been spent, I encourage them to either enter their time directly into computerized systems as the work is done or if time is kept manually, to keep their time forms in front of them and use them like a diary.  I invite them to record every minuscule task, regardless of how seemingly small and potentially unworthy of recordation or charge.  When added up after a complete day, they amount to a lot more than usually is expected, and become something worth billing.  It also helps focus our attention on how we spend our day embroiled in minutia and how we can improve our time management.  Often we find that we do not need to work harder in order to produce higher billable hours, only smarter.

As well, writing it all down as we do the work preserves it in a far more accurate way than if we try to reconstruct it at a later point in time.  We can always edit it later, but when not relying upon our memory to keep track of our efforts, we free up our brains and preserve our energies so that we can direct them without distraction to the tasks before us.  That seems to me to be a far more preferable use of our retentive powers than imposing on ourselves the additional and unnecessary stress of trying to keep it all in our memories – which are already crammed full of details.

In order to make the most of our billable time communications, I suggest that focus be placed upon language usage.  We want to be clear and understood. We also want to couch our descriptions in a manner that convinces the client that the work we did was necessary, important and should be paid for without question.  Certainly it seems more palatable to describe time spent in document management, for example, as “analyzed, organized and identified privileged documents,” instead of “sorted, tabbed and photocopied files.”  Many similar terms and phrases can be developed to accurately reflect the work performed in its best light.  As well, I have counseled legal assistant staff members to be certain that they include an active verb in each description.  By doing so, we communicate our participation in the work rather than implying that we were passive.  For example, using the phrase, “conferred with attorney Jones,” is preferable to “conference with attorney Jones” and “traveled to Superior Court to file emergency pleadings with clerk,” is better than “trip to court.”  “Drafted, proofed and edited corporate minutes,” is better than “preparation of corporate documents.”

Generic (and more obtuse) terminology works well for our ministerial functions. “Performed file management tasks,” is more impressive than “hole punching, labeling and filing.”  “Participated in file organization,” better addresses what might otherwise be referenced as “tabbing, photocopying, tearing apart and putting file back together,” (which I have seen submitted on time entries I have reviewed). Raising the level of sophistication in our language usage creates a stronger impression of who we are, what we do and how it benefits the client and their matters that we handle for them.  “Conferred with” is more appealing than “talked to,” and “located and retrieved,” beats “searched for missing documents,” hands down.

When describing technical or analytical tasks, explicit entries are more desirable.  We can use these sort of time entries to impart a sense of our skill level.  “Organized documents for themes/arguments/topics to be used at time of trial,” tells much more about our work than “organized trial documents.” So does “prepared federal court pretrial exhibits list, proof of service and court cover sheet,” instead of “prepared pretrial documents.” “Analyzed and summarized plaintiff’s responses to first set of interrogatories propounded by defendant Smith,” works better than “reviewed interrogatories.”

I have participated in several debates about whether to use present or past tense and frankly, I don’t think it matters so long as whichever is chosen is used uniformly and consistently.  It is a poor reflection upon ourselves if we cannot focus long enough to maintain the same tense throughout our entries.  As well, it is inconsiderate to use abbreviations unless we are sure that the recipient will be able to understand them.  Acronyms for commonly referenced entities are acceptable if the ultimate reader recognizes them. When in doubt, use the full name.  “Re” instead of “regarding,” “&” (ampersand) instead of “and” (except in firm names) and “misc.” instead of “miscellaneous,” may be interpreted as reflections of laziness on the part of the timekeeper.

Lastly, I have two other suggestions for your consideration:

1. It is okay to mention conferences with attorneys, but it’s better not to mention instructions or discussions with staff members (such as secretaries, office service personnel, etc.) An entry such as “Conferred with attorney Brown regarding deposition digest deadline” is okay; “conference regarding file organization” might get by (use of passive rather than active voice works here) but “conferred with Kate Green, secretary to attorney Brown, regarding filing system” is likely not to fly.

2.  Even if you feel you’ve wasted your time on a project (such as waiting in line to file documents at the courthouse or waiting for the photocopy machine to be free when working on a rush filing), don’t allow feelings to color the tenor of time entries.  Be objective.  If the time was spent performing services which benefited the client, then no matter how menial or apparently insignificant the work was in your perception, it is appropriate to record it.  If the billing attorney thinks it should be written off, it is his responsibility to so decide.  If reported to the client who then objects to paying for it, at the very least it will afford the billing attorney some leeway to reduce the bill and appear generous for doing so.  If never reported, that opportunity is lost.  Recognize that it is not your decision to make and record everything that is appropriate to record.

Time entries are incredibly important.  They convey much about us.  Let’s take advantage of that and project who we are and what we do in the best possible light. It only takes a little more effort to accomplish a great deal.

Barbara L. Liss is an Estate Planning, Trust Administration and Probate Paralegal at the Law Office of Christopher C. Jones, Santa Barbara, California. She also is an instructor at the UCSB Extension Paralegal Certificate Program and serves on the board of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association as Newsletter Editor and chair of its Full Day MCLE Conference Committee for 2011. She has been a paralegal since the early 1970’s and earned her Paralegal Certificate from UCSB Extension in 1984. She participated in the NFPA’s white paper committee which wrote the first definition of the term, “paralegal.” In the mid-1980’s, she testified before the California State Bar’s Public Protection Committee on the subject of paralegal regulation and before the California Senate’s Sub-Committee on the Judiciary concerning Paralegal Licensure. She acquired a California private, post secondary teaching credential in Paralegal Studies in 1990. Co-author of the Practicing Law Institute’s Workshop for Legal Assistant’s Handbook, she has also published many articles on subjects of interest to paralegals in a variety of newsletters and magazines. She may be contacted at: barbara@eatonjones.com.

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Please feel free to leave a comment regarding this article or share an additional thought, tip or trick for tracking billable time with your fellow TPS readers!  As always, we welcome your thoughts and we’d love to hear from you.