Why you Need to Stop Discounting your Time

Automatic Discount?
Automatic Discount?

One of the things young lawyers in my experience struggle with is their ability to see the value in what they do.

I see the evidence of it pretty frequently, and in particular in this way: they discount their own time.  With time billing still a prevalent way of lawyers measuring their output, this can be a killer because it has ripple effects.

What do I mean?  I mean that, having spent 1.5 hours on a task, they instead write down only 1 hour on their time sheet.

Don’t pretend you’ve never done it, because I know that most of you have.

So today I want to give you a few pointers about where this habit stems from, and why you need to get rid of it going forward.

It All Starts With Fear

Have a think about WHY you might be writing your own time down.

Principally, it all stems from your own fear.

Fear of getting in trouble for taking longer than your boss thought it should take.

Fear of the total bill that might get sent to the client.

Fear of people knowing that you’re not quite as smart as you want them to think.

All of those are, of course, completely irrational – but just because something is irrational doesn’t mean that we don’t do it.

If It Took Longer, Then It Took Longer

This sounds like straightforward logic, right?

But here is the conundrum – if your boss told you it was going to take one hour, and you took two – doesn’t that mean you’re slow, or stupid, or incompetent?

No.

Or at least – not necessarily, and usually not.

If you are incompetent then you’ve got bigger problems to deal with than this.

But normally it means one of these things instead:

  • your boss underestimated the amount of work that addressing the issue or doing the task was going to take (this is extremely common)
  • the question was badly articulated, and you should have asked for more information at the time it was delegated;
  • you were afraid to go and tell your boss it was taking longer.

Don’t forget that, depending on how junior you are, you are expected to take longer – it’s factored in to your charge out rate.  There is a reason that you cost half what your boss does.

There are simple solutions here.

First – if something is taking longer than expected, just go and tell the person who gave you the task and ensure it’s OK to continue working.  Provide them with a short update on what you’ve done, and estimate (realistically) how much more time it’s going to take to finish the task.

Next – at the time you get a task, if there’s something that doesn’t make sense then seek clarification at the time.  The number of questions I address from people who didn’t nail down the task at the time it was given is truly surprising – it’s a simple case of “a stitch in time, saves nine”.

Longer Working Hours Don’t Solve the Problem

One of the most insidious results of writing down your own time is the feeling that you then need to work extra hours at the end of the day to “make up” for the time that, in fact, you DID work but isn’t reflected in your time sheet.

Stupid, right?  It’s not like you were slacking off – you were doing the work.  The only problem is that nobody knows you were doing the work, because you’ve decided to hide it from the world.

Sure, there will be times where you have to work late, make up for a stuff up, or otherwise get your budget back on track.

But if you habitually write down your own time on recording it, then it’s going to be EVERY DAY.  Your hours will get longer, and longer.

And there will come a point where you simply can’t do it anymore.  You’ll be flogging your guts out to make budget, working 14 or more hours a day, and barely scraping “average” in your fees billed.

You’re Sending the Wrong Signals

Part of the problem with writing your own time down is the misinformation that it sends to your boss, your colleagues, and your employer.

If you are working (and I mean working, not just hanging around) 12 hours a day, but only barely scraping your budget, what message is that sending?

There are a few ways of cutting this particular pie, so here are the options:

  • If it’s infrequently, it could be because you had a large non-billable task and that took up time;
  • If your time is down across the board, you might not have enough work to do.  Although if that’s the case, why are you still working such long hours?
  • You are slacking off and not diligently working for the hours that you’re in the office;
  • You are inefficient, and unable to work in a focused way that recovers a maximum amount of time;

See how bad some of these are?

So what message are you sending through your time recording?

Time to Get your Time Right

So here’s the deal – writing down your own time is:

  • causing you to work longer hours than you need to;
  • perpetuating a problem in your way of receiving delegated tasks;
  • making you look bad;
  • destroying your morale.

So cut it out, and start recording your time properly.

Happy Lawyering!

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