Our secretaries are now time recording as well

A granular overview of secretarial time can give law firms a better idea of costs, productivity, and merit for recognition – says Glyn Morris, partner at Higgs.

Glyn Morris, partner|Higgs|

“Did I hear you correctly?” or “I bet that went down like a lead balloon”, might be just two of the most reasonably anticipated retorts from amongst any law firm management team, upon discovering that our secretaries (for ease we’ll use this generic term to refer to personal assistants/secretary/administrative and legal support) are now time recording.

In this, the first of two articles, let me explain why it makes such absolutely perfect sense that everyone will wonder why they haven’t been doing it before. And then, in the second article, Michelle Jamieson, head of legal services will elaborate on how we implemented time recording, and the rather unexpected and surprising reaction from the individuals involved.

Brief history of time

To explain why we thought this all makes such perfect sense, first suspend for a moment whether you think the billable hour is dead and let’s take you back to the beginning of time recording. To quote from ‘The (modern) father of the billable hour and timesheet’, by Ron Baker April 16, 2009 – “Reginald Heber Smith, a Harvard graduate and attorney hired to head Boston Legal Aid in 1914 was using timesheets as early as the 1920s, [even] timesheets in six-minute increments. He brought the concepts of “Scientific Management” to this organization, based upon the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was famous for his time-and-motion studies starting in the late 1800s, working to help factories become more productive.” Later on, recording time transitioned to being the principal method for charging for legal services but few will recall that it started life as a means of improving productivity and efficiency.

Now fast forward over 100 years to Higgs in 2022:

  • The world has changed and so has the legal landscape
  • Whatever changes are to come will happen more quickly than ever before
  • Changing roles and structures are being shaped by increasing costs of lawyers, as they shift from traditional legal support activities to an increasing contribution toward production of the legal services product
  • Working patterns and locations of work have radically changed, maybe for good.

So why wouldn’t you capture secretarial time?

Against the backdrop of everything we have said above, there are three powerful reasons behind our motive to do this. Let’s take each in turn:

  1. True cost capture. We know that in many law firms, salaries make up over 50% of the total cost base with a significant proportion of the salary cost attributable to non-lawyers. To understand the true nature of the cost of the production of legal services – how can you not seek to understand where and how secretarial resources are being consumed?
  2. Efficiency & productivity. Understanding those tasks that consume excessive amounts of time should drive us towards more efficient practices/technology or automation. Those lawyers or departments who consume the most or least amount of secretarial services may need adjustment to their working practices or need to find other solutions in order to be more effective.
  3. Visibility & recognition. Tangible and visible evidence being made available, spotlighting the enormous contributions and hard work being carried out by a skilled and knowledgeable labour force that can potentially be under appreciated by lawyer colleagues or management.

The case is so compelling, but only a few firms that I have heard seem to have tackled this. Could be that challenges of implementation make even the most robust managing partner feel a bit nervous to initiate change?

Michelle Jamieson will next outline how to successfully implement time recording for secretaries – you may be very surprised at the outcome.

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