Do Associates Intentionally Underreport Chargeable Time?

Smart Time Solves a Mystery, Revealing Hidden Timekeeping Behaviors and Motives

What would you say if I told you that some timekeepers intentionally underreport their time? I’d never thought about it as a possibility, since in most law firms putting up big hours is a badge of honor. Why would anybody underreport their time?

Who Knew?

When a law firm uses Smart Time, our timekeeping system, beyond its original intent, you can bet it gets our attention. If you see something once, it’s merely interesting, but see something twice? That’s when I ask, “What’s going on here?”

We’ve studied and helped firms build time entry due date compliance policies. But the issue of underreporting or “eating” time had never crossed our radar.

However, recently, two of our clients told us how they used Smart Time: to find out if associates intentionally underreport chargeable time and why.

In my writings, I’ve talked extensively about timekeepers who underreport or leak time because they had trouble remembering, at the moment they prepare their timesheets, what they did. But intentional underreporting? That’s another beast.

A Little Detective Work

What happened is that the firms ran time captures for a month for each timekeeper. The time captures reported what the timekeeper did, when they did it and how long it took. They then compared the time captures to the actual hours booked, looking for patterns of missing time.

The first finding both firms reported to us is that younger and less experienced associates tend to underreport more time than experienced associates.

When the firm’s management spoke to the offending associates, they first confirmed the behavior and then asked, “Why?” This is what they learned:

  • Associates underreported time in order to make superiors think they were more competent than other associates in the same class – which they hoped would lead to better assignments.

  • Associates underreported time to take pride in meeting the time allotted by their superior to complete the assigned task.

  • Some associates reported that the billing partner on the matter told them to do it.

I’ll leave it to you to play industrial psychologist to figure out what this all means. I think it has a lot to do with associates gaming competence and partners bullying young associates. But, whatever it means, it’s not a healthy process.

Let Nothing Escape

Let me make this clear. Everybody should record everything they did without judgment. Let the billing partner, at prebill time, decide what gets billed and what gets written off. Complete and accurate timesheets should be at the foundation of your timekeeping policy.