Original article appears in March 2015 issue of LJN’s Legal Tech Newsletter
By Josh Young
Gilbert & Sackman is a Los Angeles-based law firm focusing on labor law, pension and employee benefits law, and class action employment law. Our staff includes eight partners, including myself, four associates and five support staff.
For more than a decade we tracked our lawyers’ time and generated bills using various iterations of Sage Timeslips, which ran on a backend server tucked away in our office. But over the last several years, we noticed Timeslips began to slow down until it reached the point that it would take the system as much as 10 to 15 seconds to respond whenever one of us made a time entry. Given that we bill by the hour, our firm was wasting a lot of valuable time waiting for Timeslips. We were also frustrated that we couldn’t enter our time while on the road. We’d either have to wait several minutes to establish a remote VPN or, more often than not, we’d scribble down a note and try to remember to enter it into the system once we returned to the office. It reached the point that time tracking and billing, an unpleasant and time-consuming distraction at the best of times, became far more painful than it needed to be.
Time to Change
By the time we started looking for a new system we were more than ready to switch to a cloud-based service. Our partners and employees are out of the office a good chunk of their time — at court, meeting with clients, taking depositions, or working from home. It was imperative that they be able to quickly access our time and billing system from wherever and whenever they needed in order to improve our operations and efficiencies. Cloud-based services are also easily scalable, so we can add seats as needed without having to upgrade internal hardware and software systems.
Making the Move
Over the course of six months I set up test accounts with various software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions providers and was immediately struck by how few of them seemed to be designed with law firms in mind. One such alternative, Harvest, did not allow us to break down our clients’ accounts by matters, or cases. This was a deal-breaker for our firm because we often work on several matters at once for a single client, and many expect us to itemize our workload by the case. Other SaaS providers did not allow us to customize invoices, a big issue because some clients want a one-page bill every month, while others demand itemized bills accounting for every hour we work. Another problem we confronted was that software for lawyers tends to be unusually expensive, perhaps because the vendors assume large law firms can afford it. In the end, I concluded that Time Tracker by eBillity provided us with a fast, flexible and reasonably priced option.
Time Tracker Basics
Time Tracker is securely accessed through any major web browser using the “https” protocol by logging in with a username and password. An “administrator” manages the users and system-wide settings for the account. Users navigate the system like they would any modern website, switching among various pages or windows, clicking a series of page tabs and menu items and entering data into various boxes or fields. And because it is system agnostic, Time Tracker can be accessed through any browser or connected device as long as the user has a decent internet connection. Apps are available so that Time Tracker can also be accessed from any iPhone, iPad, Android unit, Blackberry device or Windows phone.
Once signed into the system, the user is greeted by an overview page that lets them see a graphical summary of their time entries for the current week. By hovering over the dashboard tab, users can choose between several pages that enable them to scan weekly time entries, as well as generate reports detailing billable hours entered per employee or customer. But the heart of Time Tracker is the weekly timesheet, a spreadsheet-like page that allows all of our employees to quickly and easily add or update how much time they spent on each client and/or matter.
The admin pages, accessible through the admin tab, enable our office manager to customize systems settings and access Time Tracker + Billing, a service upgrade feature that lets our office manager quickly generate customized customer invoices based on employee’s time entries.
Our firm’s experience
One of the more challenging aspects to switching was determining which legal matters remained active and needed to be transitioned to Time Tracker. We had over one thousand distinct matters that had to be inputted into Time Tracker, but the software does not provide any mechanism, such as uploading CSV files, to do so automatically. As a result, our staff had to input each individual matter manually — and then review the work to make sure there were no mistakes — a process that took a few weeks.
We did not transfer old time slips into the new system, because those hours had already been billed. However, this decision could create headaches some day should we win one of several outstanding class action lawsuits that our firm handles on a contingency basis. We would then have to access our old system, dormant at this time, to extract old time slips so we could justify our contingency fee based on hours worked over many years.
The feature that has impressed me most is Time Tracker’s weekly timesheet. I keep it open on my computer all day long and it allows me to make rapid-fire entries on the page, making it much easier to switch between tasks on the fly. With our old system, our staff had to open a new window every time they wanted to make a new entry.
Our staff uses the iPhone app (mostly) and Android app. Both are very similar. Personally, I use my use iPhone app sparingly, largely because it is simply easier to navigate Time Tracker on a big computer monitor than on a small screen. Only when I’m on the go and paying cash will I use the app, primarily out of concern I will forget to input the expense item when I return to the office.
There are several features we do not use, most notably the ability to sync Time Tracker to Intuit’s QuickBooks. The feature automatically syncs customer data, employee lists, service and payroll items between Time Tracker and QuickBooks, eliminating the need to make dual entries. The bookkeeper or office manager using Time Tracker’s admin dashboard, can review and approve entries submitted by employees or contractors. Any entries approved by the admin automatically sync to QuickBooks for invoicing, reports or payroll processing.
Nor do we integrate Time Tracker with Outlook, a feature that allows users to book a client meeting in Outlook and convert that meeting into a Time Tracker entry. Our office, uses Google’s calendar to track case deadlines and other important dates. We also do not use Time Tracker’s client portal, a service that lets clients login to a branded client portal where they can view outstanding invoices, pay bills online, and pay monthly retainers.
There are a few details I think could use some improvement. As fast as it seems compared with our old system, I think Time Tracker could be faster. When I make an entry in the weekly timesheet, it usually takes a second or two to save the information. We’ve never lost any data, but watching a tiny wheel spin on the screen makes me worried we might lose work, and the system occasionally seems like it’s based on the old save-your-work model instead of something that automatically saves as you go. I would feel more comfortable with it if there were a slightly more robust back-end system powering the service.
Another feature we’d like to see is a mechanism, such as a CSV file, to upload into Time Tracker data from our office postage and Xerox machines, statements from messenger services, as well as legal research website bills. At present, we have to manually allocate and input these totals into Time Tracker before we can generate monthly expense accounts for each client.
We are a small firm of very busy individuals constantly on the go. Our number one goal in adopting Time Tracker was to minimize as much as possible the distraction and wasted time that comes with accounting for every minute worked. We are also quite entrenched when it comes to our preferences and work habits. And yet, despite some inevitable growing pains, we managed to adapt very quickly to Time Tracker’s intuitive and easy-to-use software that we can access from just about anywhere. As an added bonus, Time Tracker’s SaaS model will enable us to scale as we grow, as well as add additional features, such as syncing with QuickBooks, that will help simplify our bookkeeping.