Let’s be honest with each other, you dislike the billable hour. Firms may benefit from using it and some lawyers may personally benefit, but that doesn’t mean anyone likes it. Since the 1960s, when using the billable hour as the way to charge for legal services grew from odd to mainstream, lawyers have not enjoyed the tyranny of the timesheet.
I’m of that generation that filled them out by hand when we started. One technique was to keep a few of the blank sheets on your desk and as the day progressed you filled in a row each time you moved from one billable event to another. That was a bit cumbersome, because at the end of the day if you had hopped back and forth, you had to redo the timesheet to aggregate work by clients and matters.
Others would scribble notes on a yellow pad. At the end of the day (I’m not sure if this is revisionist history—end of a few days? a week?) they would fill out the formal timesheet, with everything properly grouped and cleaned up descriptions. Of course, there were those who didn’t do the clean up until the end of the month. They would take a day or two to sort everything out, re-write it all, and then submit it. Billable hours would dip at the end and beginning of a month. The world changed forever when we moved to computer-based systems.
Today, of course, there are all sorts of tools and an app for that. The experts in billing know that timeliness is critical to accuracy. And, with clients looking for real-time data feeds, the days of filling out timesheets once in a while are long gone. Contemporaneous timekeeping is all the rage. But, the tyranny of the timesheet is still there.
One of the reasons, I’m told, that we have so much trouble getting lawyers to move into the 21st century is the culture of the individual. Lawyers, because of their personalities and training, believe in the power of one—and each lawyer is the one (move over, Neo). As individuals, we like to do things our own way, not the group way. We like to come up with our own solutions, do our own research, write our own documents, and handle our own matters. We believe this approach is essential to our creativity and effectiveness as lawyers. When someone suggests that we operate as a team, that we follow a process, or that we adhere to a project plan, it threatens our “oneness.” While clients may pay the price for this approach, they still have the privilege of working with us and that should make up for any monetary inconvenience.
The Emerging Science of People Analytics
Well, hold on to your seats lawyers, things are going to get bumpy. One of the challenges with implementing process improvement in the lawyer workforce is getting specific about how time is spent. Yes, we record our days in six-tenths increments, but the descriptions and accuracies of those reports are coarse, at best. At the beginning of the 20th century, when lawyer time sheets were first invented, we would have used the observation method to overcome this challenge. We would stick someone with a stopwatch in your office and have them record what you did and for how long. After a week or two, we would have a detailed record of how you actually spent your time, and we could dig into process improvement. Please note, you really don’t want us to use observations because you would find about 60% to 80% of your day does not add value.
Well, you may have heard that technology, or rather software, is eating all things (a nice phrase from venture capitalist Marc Andreesen). The latest bite is something called “people analytics.” It “uses time management data to help companies understand the relationships—external and internal—driving corporate decision-making.” If you are wondering whether people analytics is a real thing, Wharton has already had two people analytics conferences, so it must be real.
It gets better. Microsoft just announced it is acquiring VoloMetrix, a software company that does people analytics. VoloMetrix’ software looks at emails and calendars and creates analytics based on how people are using their time. For example, if a manager spends a total of 30 hours a week sending emails to and meetin with her managers, she probably is managing up rather than spending most of her time on productive work. Microsoft intends to develop the software and then embed it in Office 365 as part of Microsoft’s efforts to use software tools to improve productivity.
Yes, Outlook may tell you to stop sucking up to the boss and get on with it.
Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.
In the professional services world, people analytics is being used to revise ideas about how to retain employees and what makes them more satisfied at work. For example, McKinsey & Company has used people analytics to significantly reduce consultant turnover. Using data rather than “who knows whom” has helped many organizations uncover what employees really are doing and thinking.
The Lawyers’ World Of Don’t Bother Me
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the legal profession. Lawyers fight the concept that anything they do can be broken into data points, measured, and used for improvement. If you view yourself as unique, a law firm of one, who does things your way because that is “the way” you must confront a harsh reality—the world doesn’t believe you. Corporate law departments will feel the influence of these new approaches to human resources. Lawyers in those departments will find themselves being measured and evaluated under people analytics the same as other employees in their organizations.
Clients will wonder why lawyers in law firms don’t use more sophisticated approaches to people management, and law firms will need to be ready with answers.
People analytics, like any data analytics approach, is not the tool that solves everything. To assume that one could use people analytics but ignore the people would result in disaster. People analytics must be used with other tools to develop a well-rounded picture of employees. This is particularly important as human skills become more important in the workplace. But, we also must avoid the urge to ignore data when it comes to performance. A happy but unproductive workforce will not help the law firm or the client.
Use The Data Tools
To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, the more we fight the behinder we get. Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.
Understanding and using data analytics generally, or even people analytics specifically, is not giving in to the dark side. It is recognizing that having 1.3 million lawyers in the United States (2 million in the world) all doing things their own way does not help anyone, including clients and their lawyers. Would you feel good if each of the almost 1 million doctors in the United States decided to practice medicine in his or her own unique way, including developing his or her own way to treat diseases? That was medicine 100 years ago and I wouldn’t want to go back to that age, yet that is law 100 years ago and today.
It may be some time before we see law firms using people analytics to improve the performance and satisfaction of lawyers and other individuals in law firms. Lawyers will decide whether law firms not addressing the needs of those who work at the firm are the best places to pursue a career. The more telling moment will come when clients decide those law firms also aren’t the best legal service providers for their needs.