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Passive Time Capture and the "Magic Pill" Syndrome – The Long-term Costs of the Quick Fix

In the early 1970s, the late comedian George Carlin observed how programed our society was becoming to finding a quick fix to nearly every ailment with a couple of pills. “Are you feeling low? Pop pop!” he would cluck into the microphone, “you need these. Have a headache? Pop pop! Then you need these.” Anyone looking at the shelves in a pharmacy can see just how much the weight loss industry has taken this idea to its heart! To be fair, if there was a genuine quick fix for the common problems or irritations of life, then we’d all be happy to use it. In most cases, of course, a quick fix turns out to be, at best, a partial fix, and at worst, a simple placebo. Sometimes, though, the quick fix, if looked at from a slightly different angle, can deliver significant benefit.

Within legal technology, an excellent example of this phenomenon is passive time capture solutions. Passive time capture is the process of electronically creating time entries based on activities detected from fee earners in email, phone records, document management, and other information stores within a firm.

For context, let’s think back to the average time keeping habits of lawyers in the good old days. The good old days in this case being the late 1990s. Legal billing by the hour was the norm, and legal invoices were seldom scrutinized or challenged. Fixed-fee or alternative fee arrangements were nearly unheard of, and net hourly realization rates fell comfortably in the mid 90% range. Things were good, marred only by the de facto process of delinquent time.

Delinquent or missing time refers to the days or even weeks of work product delivered by professionals but not yet recorded in the firm billing systems. In this pre-millennial era, a common practice by an alarming percentage of fee earners would be to create all of their time entries the last day of the month. “I’m too busy serving my clients. I’ll get to the admin when I can.” Procrastination and an underestimate of the value of good timekeeping practices were to firm finances what bags of chips, gallons of soda, and nightly binge-watching are to the waistline.

Early in the new millennium, the growing adoption of IP-based phone systems and digital document management systems along with the rapid migration from fax and courier document delivery to email created a confluence of new information firms could examine to detect fee earners’ activities based upon logs created within these repositories. Passive time capture—software platforms designed to catalog events without user intervention—had arrived.

At first glance, it is easy to see how these early solutions would be perceived as a magic bullet to address the nagging headache of delinquent time. Technology would now scour the digital footprints a lawyer left throughout the day in the information stores of the firm and complete the important but mundane timekeeping entries automatically. Problem solved, right?

Well at the time maybe, but as it turns out, not so much today. Akin to popping a pill instead of getting a walk in and skipping dessert, the crutch of passive time capture has shown to foster poor timekeeping habits if used as the primary driver for effective timekeeping. Not only can the technology deliver negative effects on overall timekeeping performance, but the cost of the technology often exceeds traditional contemporaneous-focused time entry platforms. Pills often cost more than natural remedies.

To paraphrase the familiar refrain we hear each evening on television during the plethora of prescription medication advertising, the side effects of passive time capture include:

  • A decreased projection of value being delivered to firm clients by simply converting activities into entries
  • Promoting a culture of firm-wide procrastination – why worry about time entry? The system will catch it for me.
  • A degradation in the quality of the time entries – Why bother taking the time to describe why a document was reviewed or if actionable items were found? The system will do that for me with a generic narrative such as Reviewed filename.doc for XX minutes.

For those of us working within or alongside the legal industry, it goes without saying that the great recession of 2008 and beyond has triggered an unprecedented sea-change in the business of law. Faced with their own financial challenges, corporate consumers of legal services have introduced a level of scrutiny in their legal spend like never before, driving firm revenue realization rates to all-time lows. Fixed or alternate fee arrangements are becoming increasingly prevalent, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are being applied to dissect law firm invoices at an astonishingly miniscule level. If your firm’s client facing statement is simply a list of activities, you are likely at a competitive disadvantage.

Passive time collection systems today, however, have value if used in a supporting role alongside contemporaneous systems to encourage good habits by filling in the gaps or acting as memory triggers rather than a crutch to replace human involvement. The role of passive time capture today is supported by the fact that in the early years of these collection systems, firms sought a high level of precision for the entry suggestions being created right down to the minute and second. Risks created by discovery rules now make the goal to provide fee earners with notional memory triggers of potential tasks and to intelligently interlace these suggestions within the entries a lawyer may have already created within the standard time entry platform. Further, the multiple engagement points now available to fee earners—from smartphones and tablets to wearable technology—provide many easy ways for a lawyer to engage contemporaneously by creating their own memory trigger of an entry to be quickly completed and finalized at a more convenient time from any device.

To quote fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne, “Probably millions of Americans got up this morning with a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a donut. No wonder they are sick and fouled up.” Reducing the voice of the lawyer to describe the value being delivered to your clients is likely fouling up your realization efforts. Well-crafted time entries get paid, while with a laundry lists of activities, let’s just say your results may vary.


Tikit is one of the largest suppliers of technology solutions & services to legal & accountancy firms, and is part of BT Group. Tikit's client list totals more than 1,450 firms globally, including 90 of the UK's top 100 law firms, 250 US law firms, 12 of the top 20 European law firms and 18 of the UK's top 50 accountancy firms. Click here for more information.

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