Leaving aside for now whether or not you agree with the billable hour; Most law firms, including many of those that work on fixed/flat and other alternative fees, still require their fee earners to fill-out and submit daily timesheets.
For a small, but ever growing, number of us however there was hope – a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak – that the efficiencies that technology was bringing to the profession would eventually reduce the need to complete timesheets. After all, tasks that used to take several hours of [billable] time (e-discovery for example), with the help and use of technology, could now be completed in less than 15 minutes: so why bother with an outdated measure of productivity such as the timesheet?
And then we had COVID-19…
And so what effect do we think COVID-19 may have on timesheets?
Well, as Cal Newport wrote in his excellent blog post of 12 April, ‘Task Inflation and Inbox Capture: On Unexpected Side Effects of Enforced Telework’:
I’ve spent years studying how knowledge work operates. One thing I’ve noticed about this sector is that it tends to treat the assignment of work tasks with great informality. New obligations arise haphazardly, perhaps in the form of a hastily-composed email or impromptu request during a meeting. If you ask a manager to estimate the current load on each of their team members, they’d likely struggle. If you ask the average knowledge worker to enumerate every obligation currently on their own plate, they’d also likely struggle — the things they need to do exist as a loose assemblage of meeting invites and unread emails.
Ouch, but the killer blow comes with Carl’s next comment:
What prevents this system from spiraling out of control is often a series of implicit friction sources centered on physical co-location in an office.
I had not heard of “friction sources” before reading Carl’s post but he is absolutely right:
When you suddenly take a workplace, and with little warning, make it entirely remote: you lose these friction sources.
And what are those ‘friction sources’ exactly?
Well, as Carl writes [quote]:
- If I see you in the office acting out the role of someone who is busy, or flustered, or overwhelmed, I’m less likely to put more demands on you.
- If I encounter you face-to-face on a regular basis, then the social capital at stake when I later ask you to do something via email is amplified.
- Conference room meetings — though rightly vilified when they become incessant — also provide opportunities for highly efficient in-person encounters in which otherwise ambiguous decisions or tasks can be hashed out on the spot.
Carl writes like someone who has worked in a law firm for decades and his thoughts give food for thought to those of us considering what the future of law might look like post COVID-19 and why the new normal may not look a whole lot different to the old way of doing things.
As always interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.
ps – If you want to Buy Me A Coffee, you find me hanging out here