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A Timesheet Compliance Policy Discussion: Many Voices, Many Solutions

Todd Gerstein
CEO, Smart WebParts

Timesheet compliance has always been dependent on how a firm’s policy shapes and directs human behavior. With that in mind, I posed a question to an online LinkedIn Law Firm Management discussion group, curious to discover how different firms handle this perennial trouble spot.

Below you’ll see the voices of many firms—in their own words—give insight into the highly varied policies and other methods firms have used to encourage compliance – some successful, some not.

The Question

I am preparing an article on timesheet compliance policies. How often do you require your attorneys to submit timesheets? How do you manage it?  What works?  What doesn’t?

The Answers

Success
For us, there are no carrots and no sticks, but there is public accountability and real-time reporting. That is, we know at any moment who is and who isn’t playing by the rules, and we quantify that daily in dollars so that people can see how good and bad behavior impacts the company. The results? We have more than 50 people in multiple offices who get their time in daily (yes, every day) by 10:00 am. Our system(s) begin the public shaming at 10:01… What’s the result on the receivable side? Well, because we have completely accurate time records, our clients get weekly updates on what we’re doing, and over the last ten (10) years, our collection rate is over 99.75% of total receivables.

We simply made it impossible to enter time more than 3 working days after the date of the proposed entry. Anyone trying to do so has to get special permission from the managing partner, based on exceptional circumstances. An attorney or other timekeeper offering the same excuse after getting special permission one time does not get approval.

While there are many strategies that tend to work for a while, the best approach is to adopt a firm-attitude (possible pun), which celebrates 100% compliance and does not tolerate time scofflaws. Offenders must know that non-compliance will be met with disapproval from their peers; punctuated if need be by a stern “talking to” from a managing partner who is comfortable saying that continued flaunting of the policy will be a factor in year-end compensation discussions. In my prior positions, my roles included pointing out this sort of issue in compensation committee meetings and I have witnessed partners and associates dinged financially ($20k in one partner situation) for poor timekeeping deadline compliance – but those three instances were extreme cases (one per decade isn’t too bad). The point being, the firm’s culture did not make excuses for those who flaunted a good and sensible rule, and each of the three people stayed with the firm, got with the program, and probably earn more now as a result of a valuable lesson learned.

We require timesheets to be submitted no later than 48 hours after the close of the day.
Our Partners are fined $25 a day for each day they are late. It is automatically deducted from their draw. As we cannot fine our associates, late timesheet information is reviewed at bonus time.

Mixed results
Our office has a written policy to turn in timesheets and enter them on a daily basis, but there is probably one or two people who actually do that. Most folks here do them weekly, or worse, on the last day of the month!

Ideally, time is entered daily and about half of our timekeepers are compliant. Of 65 attorneys, more than 80% enter their own time. Our general rule of thumb is all time for the prior week must be entered and posted by noon on Monday. On Tuesday, reminder emails are sent to those timekeepers not in compliance with a copy to me and the attorney’s Dept. Chair. For the most part, the protocol works.

Our firm requires time be entered daily; however, the attorneys are not held accountable until the month-end closing process. Most enter time daily, a few weekly and a couple stubborn folks don’t even get it in every month, and so there is endless chasing and cajoling.

They are supposed to turn them in daily. About 75% of them do. With some of them it’s like pulling teeth to get their time from them at the end of the month, and sometimes we end up telling them to add the entries to the pre-bills because we can’t wait any longer. I wish we fined them!

We ask our timekeepers to submit their time weekly, so it can be reflected in the weekly hours reports that go to the partners. Ideally, the reports are used to evaluate who, and which department, is busy. Having said that, about 1/4 of our timekeepers wait until the last day of the month to submit. and half of those are partners.

Failure
Our timekeepers are requested to input time on a daily basis, though the only requirement is that they submit them before month-end. We have a time and billing system, together with remote access, that allows our timekeepers to keep the program open all day as they work, but there is no consistency with methodology. Some of our timekeepers dictate the time entries, some write them out and give to their assistant to enter, while others enter directly through the time and billing system as they should. I have been with this firm for 19 years and it continues to be a struggle to get partners to enter time properly. Penalties for non-compliance is not a consideration.

We require all time to be turned in by Tuesday morning for the previous week. I would prefer to see it entered daily, as I believe that the longer you wait the more you lose. As with all deadlines imposed on attorneys, some follow them and others just let them slide. We are trying to deal with the problem children now. The Managing Partner is considering a “List of Shame,” which I have tried before at another firm, unsuccessfully I might add. Part of our problem is that when we developed the current policy, there were supposed to be consequences for those who missed more than twice. The consequences were not used and thus the policy became a joke.

Conclusion

Carrots and sticks abound, all of them being used with the goal of getting very busy attorneys to prioritize their timesheets. My take-away from this is that the humans in each firm don’t differ all that much, but that the most successful firms are working within a protocol that is non-negotiable, consistent and maintains clear expectations.  Culturally, these firms have made timesheet compliance a priority. The rest are dealing with varying degrees of success and frustration, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with inconsistencies in methodology, unclear expectations and a culture that doesn’t value timesheet compliance.

Hearing these voices from the trenches is an education on timekeeping compliance policy in and of itself. While it seems there is no magic bullet, the ability to compare approaches and policies at least begins to shed some light on what can work to boost compliance.

Lastly, I want to thank everyone who took the time to reply with their honest (and often detailed) assessment of their firm’s approach.