I never met a lawyer who loved to docket their time, but I have met a number of lawyers (myself included) who were very good at it. I met many, many more lawyers who were not so good at it.
Maybe someday we will be completely rid of the billable hour, but even if that comes to pass, it will still be important for lawyers to be able to analyze how they are spending their time, if only to understand how to set fixed fees.
So, there we are. We all hate docketing. We all need to be good at it. Here it is. Fully explained. In small words. At last.
The first step is to determine your goals. Here are my suggestions:
- The first goal is for recording your time to become so second nature to you that it is like breathing. For me, it got to the point that if I was working on my income taxes at home, when I got up to take a break I would instinctively want to record a docket entry. It would take me a second to remember that there was no one to bill. A sick way to live? Perhaps. But I was a great docketer!
- The second goal is to record all of your billable time, honestly and ethically. That does not mean that you are going to bill all of your billable time. It just means that you are going to know how much time you spent when it comes time to decide what to bill.
- I know that not everyone is going to agree with my third suggested goal, which is to record all of your non-billable time as well. Why? First, to maintain the discipline of recording all of your billable time. You don’t want to be jumping back and forth between docketing and not docketing depending on what you are doing. You want to be in the habit of recording it all. Second, because you want to know how you are spending your time so you can measure the cost of your investments in training, mentoring, business promotion, administration, and other aspects of your professional life. You can use that information to adjust your activities or to advocate for greater compensation.
- The fourth goal is to always strive to approximate the actual time spent. More about that later.
The next step is to establish some principles which you will apply to achieving your goals. Here are some principles which you may want to adopt:
- Do not use minimum dockets. There are some lawyers who do use minimum dockets. I have seen lawyers use a minimum docket of twelve minutes or fifteen minutes, so the lawyer works for three minutes and bills for twelve or fifteen minutes. I think that it is fraud if you tell your clients that you are charging them a certain amount per hour and do not make it abundantly clear that you are using minimum dockets. And yet, some lawyers can rationalize doing this.
- Think about how you round dockets. Some lawyers round up to six minutes from three minutes. I can sort of live with that, provided that you are also rounding down to zero from two minutes and otherwise doing everything possible to minimize docketing more time than you are actually spending.
- Docket every minute of your damn day, with the exception of bathroom, coffee, and lunch breaks (unless you are working or promoting business over lunch).
- Your time spent is your time spent. If you think that you took too long, you still docket the time spent. If you think that you were unusually efficient, you still docket the time spent. There is time for exercising discretion and that is when the bill is being finalized, not when the docket entry is being made.
- There is only one acceptable time to complete your docket entry, and that is immediately upon completing a task. There are exceptions to every rule. Except this one. There are no exceptions to this one. Only excuses, none of which are good.
After you know what your goal is and you have some principles, all that is left is to develop some good habits so that you can consistently align your activities to your principles and achieve your goals. Here are some tricks that worked for me:
- When the phone rings, start your timer. Every single time. If it turns into something billable, you can fill in the client’s name and description after the call. If it is your mother calling, you can turn the timer off and reset it to zero. Unless your mom is a client, of course. (By the way, you should tell your mom to call you after business hours. So, after 10 pm.)
- When you open an email, start your timer. Same like with a ringing phone.
- When your co-workers come into your office or call you on the phone, start your timer. If it turns out to be non-billable, you can turn the timer off and reset it to zero – or better yet, docket it to a non-billable file if at all possible.
- If your discussion with a co-worker is about a file, you record the time. No exceptions. Ever. You don’t have to bill it, but you do have to record it.
- When you are working on something and a co-worker comes in to speak to you, make them wait to start the conversation until you have turned your timer off, completed your docket entry and started a new timer. Every single time, unless there is a large fire and you have to vacate the building. If there is a small fire and you have to vacate the building, complete your docket entry before leaving.
- There are three different approaches which you can take when you have a one-minute call with a client in the morning. These are:
- Do not docket it because you would have to round it down to zero anyway. This is the wrong approach because the odds are good that you will do something else on that matter on the same day and you don’t want to lose track of the one minute that you already spent.
- Start your docket entry and put in a description. Enter one minute if your system allows it, or zero if it does not. If you do something else for the client during the day, add it to your description and to the time. If you do even more work on the matter that day, keep adjusting the entry. At the end of the day round up, round down or finalize it. This is my recommended approach.
- Charge a minimum docket of 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 and when you do something else for the client later in the day for another minute, charge a 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 again. This is fraud. Don’t do it, laddy!
7. If you are out of the office, either docket remotely on your computer or phone if you have an app that does that or go old-school and write yourself a note. If you are driving, call your own voicemail and leave a message with the docket amount and description to transcribe before you go to bed.
8. Come hell or high water, you complete your dockets before the end of the day. You have no right to go to sleep until they are done. Seriously. I mean that.
9. When the phone rings and you are in the midst of doing something, ask the caller to hold for a minute. While the client is holding, finish your docket entry, start another one and turn on the timer. The client will be happy that you took the call and will understand that you have to take a minute to finish something up before starting the discussion. They don’t have to know what you are finishing up.
Only bad things happen to lawyers who do not docket properly. Suck it up. Do it right. Save your excuses for someone who cares. Which is nobody.
If you really cannot bring yourself to do this, get out of private practice or go solo. You are only going to be made miserable by firm management if you stay.