The third conclusion from our research was that firms should train lawyers and staff to use the codes.
Whatever system is used, many experts have written about the problem of accuracy. Keith Lipman is the president of Prosperoware, a legal technology firm that created Umbria, one of the best known legal process management software packages. In a 2015 blog post entitled “The Task Code Conundrum” he wrote:
The problem with all these codes is that a significant number of lawyers don’t use them accurately. Anecdotally, I’ve been told on many occasions that 60 to 80% of time entries have inaccurate codes.
Ken Grady, one of the most widely quoted experts in LPM, has worked both in-house, as the general counsel at Wolverine, and on the law firm side, where he currently holds the position of Lean Law Evangelist at Seyfarth Shaw. He is unenthusiastic about task codes, in part because:
Self-reported data, especially when it involves things like measuring time spent on tasks, is notoriously unreliable…. We have to make sure each timekeeper is well-trained in how to apply the codes to work.
Similarly, several of the experts we interviewed described problems of inaccurate coding, including these eye opening examples:
I did an analysis of a certain type of litigation, where partners thought that analyzing the task codes would be very helpful. Instead, I showed the partners that the L100 codes, which are supposed to be used for trial preparation, were used during the week of trial…. The lawyers explained that secretaries at the firm picked the task codes…. I told the partners in a different matter that it was just not possible for a case to have the amount of effort in a particular category that the task codes indicated. They said that when the secretaries reach some pre-assigned limits for the amount of time in a particular code, they just stop using that code and start using another code. If a secretary knows that, say, the L330 code will always be fine to be used, he or she will just keep using it. They just dump time there. That makes the results really inconsistent.
Several of the people we interviewed, however, reported that accuracy can be increased if time is taken to train lawyers to use task or phase codes properly:
When we first started using task codes, we had problems with consistency. Five lawyers who attended the same meeting sometimes coded their time five different ways. That is not happening anymore, because now at the beginning of every project everyone involved discusses all the possible codes, to put everyone on the same page.
Different lawyers have widely different views of the application of the ABA task codes, so when they are used, we have to have meetings in advance to explain their use.
If it appears to my group that time is not entered correctly, we re-educate the lawyers on how to do it.
For present cases, lawyers can’t enter their time without task codes. If we see a sign of “garbage entries,” it is part of my job to hold discussions with the group involved to make sure that we get better data.
Some lawyers do give us “junk data” or refuse to participate, but lately that number has been fewer than five percent of our attorneys. We do have some lawyers who use task codes that are obviously incorrect or irrelevant, so we explain the proper use of task codes to them and this usually corrects the problem. We have met with many attorneys in person and we have emailed many secretaries to show them how this should be done.
The role of staff should not be ignored. A number of firms we’ve spoken to have trained admin staff to save lawyers time by entering the codes for them, and they have reported that this not only saves lawyers time, it also increases the accuracy of data entry.
This general issue is so important that the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) is planning to release a new set of ALA UTBMS codes which are intended to capture or reflect all activities performed by non-attorney personnel. The head of the committee that developed these codes, Bill Mech, a principal at ofPartner Consulting Services, notes that:
One reality often overlooked is that a lawyer never practices alone. They are supported by numerous administrative personnel [including]… legal secretaries and paralegals… These essential members of the legal team can significantly increase compliance and accuracy of coding efforts – assuming they are provided the necessary training and support.
When he reviewed a draft of this series of posts, Peter Secor, the Director of Strategic Pricing and Project Management at Pepper Hamilton, emphasized a similar point:
Secretaries and billers often work on time entry edits. That group is key… they need to understand the value that codes can add. I just cannot emphasize that enough.... We have developed cheat sheets for certain engagements on which task codes to use for what. We have also have cheat sheets on the practice group level, including how narratives should be worded so we can data-mine the cost of a particular type of deponent or specific motion.
At the end of the day, the value of the data collected with any kind of coding system is based on everyone using the same terminology in the same way. Note that this is true whether one uses UTBMS-type codes, or simple English language task titles. Many legal accounting software packages can make this easier by enabling “forced” categorization of time entries according to a preset list of categories defined by the matter manager. While this alone will not eliminate miscoded time entries, it goes a long way toward improving accuracy.
This series was adapted from the Fourth Edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, which will be published this fall.