Time Is Money

Wednesday Mar 1st 2000 by SmallBusinessComputing Staff

Time and billing software keeps a Boston law firm on track

by Michele Marrinan

Any business that sells a service whether it's a consulting firm, a public relations agency, or a graphic design house ­ knows that the process of billing clients for time can be one of the most cumbersome and time consuming tasks that they face.

Quite often these businesses attract "idea people" and creative types that don't like to get bogged down in the specifics of just how long it takes to complete each task. And if the company is relying on hand-written time sheets that must be keyed into a system, double-checked for accuracy, and physically passed around the office for the proper approvals, the problem is compounded.

Sarah Gibson knows this problem well. Before automating the time and billing procedure for her Boston-based law firm, she faced the dreaded task each month of compiling by hand the time she spent advising clients and producing invoices. Despite the fact that at that time she had just one major institutional client, Gibson usually spent an entire day adding up the hours from her daily time log and typing out invoices for each of the client's cases. She hated it.

"I was keeping track of my time by hand. I created a little chart detailing date, casework performed, and how much time I spent," she says. "At the end of the month I went through this horribly long and arduous process of typing the bills. It took me the better part of a day to get the bills out."

Time and billing software eases the burden faced by businesses that must keep detailed accounts of time spent on each project for each client. Hours and descriptions can be entered right on the employee's desktop by job and client codes. In some instances timers can be set as an employee begins to work on specific documents or projects ­ or even phone calls ­ and time is then entered automatically. At the end of the billing cycle, the information can be viewed and approved on line by supervisors, and then can be forwarded to the accounting department to be compiled and downloaded into billing programs. This automation adds up to serious savings of time and reduction of inaccuracies.

Gibson realized that managing this process by hand wouldn't get her very far, so she automated the process in 1994. Since then she has cut down billing time by about one-third using Timeslips Version 8 for Windows, a time tracking and billing software program from Sage Software Inc.

The features have been a lifesaver for Gibson, who hired two attorneys and an office assistant soon after she purchased Timeslips. Although she stops short of crediting the program for her growth, Gibson admits that automation certainly simplified the process.

"It was never a worry to me, how we were going to track all these different attorneys' time," says Gibson, who worked alone for several years after launching her firm in 1991. "It gave me the security of knowing that billing could be done accurately and easily. It wasn't going to be a big fuss."

Because the PCs in her office are not networked, Gibson and her employees use Timeslips Remote, a module that allows the other attorneys to track their time according to date, client, time, and case. At the end of each month, they save that information onto a disk and import it into the main computer, which is equipped with the full version of Timeslips. Gibson then compiles the information and produces reports on activity for each client. After reviewing and approving each report she produces invoices. The total process takes about six to eight hours.

Although that's about the same time it took her to generate invoices by hand, Gibson is quick to point out that she now has about 10 clients, each of which can have up to 20 cases per month. And she must track her associates' time as well. She estimates that it would take her several days to do it all by hand.

That tracking feature is critical because Gibson and her associates specialize in occupational health and safety cases, as well as general labor and employment disputes for unions and individuals. That means they sometimes handle a number of cases simultaneously for a particular client.

Gibson recalls how difficult it was in the early days to keep all those cases straight. Although she tried to scrupulously record every expenditure of time and money, there were times when she was so swamped with work that she could only estimate at a day's end. And when she automated the process, Gibson realized just how inaccurate estimating can be.

"Frequently I find that phone calls are shorter than I think they are," says Gibson, who turns on the Timeslips timer whenever a client phones with a question. "Legal services are expensive. Thanks to the timer, both the client and I have some assurance that the amount I bill for is going to be accurate. I don't have to estimate." This feature is particularly helpful in an industry that often requires a retainer or work on a contingency basis. Timeslips can bill according to each scenario.

Gibson's favorite feature, the one she relies on the most, is the client worksheet. It gives her a day-by-day description of the work performed by each attorney, plus a list of all the expenses for each client. That was difficult information to track in the everything-by-hand days. Gibson kept a chronological calendar of all the work performed. While it may have been complete, it did not allow her to easily isolate specific components. If, for example, she wanted to isolate the data from a particular client, she had to go through each day and manually pick out the time and money spent on that client. Timeslips does that automatically.

"Accuracy and flexibility are really crucial for a law office," says Gibson, who has also been able to use the software to customize invoices with her letterhead and pertinent client information. And while she hired a consultant to set up the system, Gibson is convinced that the process was simple enough for her to handle on her own. She hired the consultant simply to save herself a little time.

Timeslips has features that Gibson doesn't even use. It can be integrated with BusinessWorks, an accounting software package also produced by Sage, as well as with numerous other popular accounting packages. Gibson, however, uses a non-compatible accounting package, so she must enter expenditures twice ­ once into Timeslips and once into her accounting software. But she insists that for her small firm it's a simple procedure that doesn't warrant giving up either program. Each works well for her business, she says.

Does Gibson have any regrets about the program? "I wish it had a spellchecker," she says with a laugh. "We read and reread, but we don't necessarily catch every spelling mistake."

So maybe time and billing software won't fix all your problems, but it will keep you from billing 10 hours instead of 70 for that $125 per hour consultant. Neither messy handwritten time-sheets, nor simple miscalculations will ever come between you and a successful billing cycle again.

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