Beyond the Billable Hour: Why and How to Track All Your Productive Time


By: The NBI Team

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Beyond the Billable Hour: Why and How to Track All Your Productive Time

In this Q&A, we talk with Jackson Walker’s Director of Attorney Development, Melissa Bates, about the benefits of tracking all productive attorney time, which includes much more than your billable hours.

Thanks for speaking with us, Melissa! Your firm excels at managing one of the most important resources at any law firm, time. What types of non-billable activities do you recommend capturing?

Thank you for inviting me!

I encourage attorneys to track all their professionally focused non-billable time, including efforts toward reputation and relationship development, business development, continuing legal education (CLE), professional development, pro bono, firm citizenship, and community service.

These time investments are important either to personal career development, the sustainability of the firm, or an attorney’s ethical obligations. Time spent on these activities is worth recording so that it may be aggregated and measured.

What are the benefits of tracking these hours from an attorney development standpoint?

We support our lawyers as they develop their legal and advocacy skills across the lifetime of their career, from law student to trusted legal advisor. From this standpoint, we need to understand our attorneys’ individual professional goals and be able to measure the ROI on billable and non-billable time dedicated to meeting those goals.

With an accurate accounting of non-billable time spent on specific goals, we can determine if the time investment moved the needle. As you pointed out above, time is a precious resource, and we want to collaborate with our attorneys to make sure their limited time is being utilized in ways that advance their careers.

How does this information assist in goal setting among your attorneys?

Attorneys at various stages of their career have different goals and should dedicate non-billable time in different ways. A first-year associate is developing a network and a reputation within the firm. They are learning to manage their time efficiently while navigating a very steep learning curve.

Partners, on the other hand, are nurturing client relationships, serving in leadership roles, and developing the talent of their teams. But attorneys at every stage of their career need to understand the various demands on their time with real data rather than relying on recall. They need to understand the recalibrations in time that are necessary to their advancement, and how to manage their time as they react to market changes.

With this data, we can determine if more or less time is required for specific goals going forward. And by tracking non-billable time we build in an accountability tool to help keep the urgent (client work) from overwhelming the important (personal and professional goals), ensuring that priority goals actually get the time and attention needed.

How does your law firm use this data to inform decision-making?

At Jackson Walker, we value people. We believe that the best lawyers deliver excellent legal service as a matter of course, and that they are also courageous and dynamic leaders serving clients and the community from a position of personal health and wellness.

Those expectations beyond providing excellent legal service require more than billable time—they require personal investment. With non-billable time data, we can better plan for, budget for, and support the development of these attributes.

Could you share some of your top timekeeping best practices for attorneys?

I advise attorneys to record their time daily. Developing a habit of daily time entry results in more accurate reporting, and much less risk of losing time. We all move quickly between tasks, which makes it unrealistic to expect to fully account for billable or non-billable time over several days.

I also encourage attorneys to have a list handy of time and task codes, not only for the client files on which they are staffed, but also for all the firm’s non-billable activities. Searching for time codes slows the process of time entry and increases the likelihood of skipping it altogether for non-billable tasks, and relying on general time codes for all non-billable activities.

Our attorney development team communicates the non-billable time code for each project or initiative we pursue, to make the process of tracking time as easy as possible. You might consider this our “nudge”.

Melissa Bates is the Director of Attorney Development at Jackson Walker where she leads a team of professionals dedicated to providing attorneys with opportunities to maximize their potential through thoughtfully planned training, mentoring, sponsorship and effective feedback in an environment that values courageous leadership, diversity, inclusion and equity. Melissa was a member of JW’s Recruiting team prior to making the move to Attorney Development, and enjoys helping to integrate new attorneys into the practice of law. In her spare time, Melissa can be found outside hiking, biking and camping with her husband and their two energetic boys.

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