In the weeds: on the over-optimisation of ebilling in legal work

Wrecked car upside down in field

Graeme Johnston / 20 April 2024

Strengths of an effective lawyer can include

  • Achieving desired results despite rules which make this challenging
  • Attention to detail
  • Opinions on the right and wrong way to do things
  • Facility with language
  • Finding angles when advocating and negotiating
  • A sense for pressure points and opportunities

Weaknesses can sometimes include shadows of these – over-complicated documents, a belief in ‘more detail’ as the answer, micro-management, argumentativeness, perfectionism, workaholism, manipulativeness and sometimes worse

And it can get worse with technology. Aldo Schiavone described the invention of Roman law and procedure as a novel social technology. Law and legal processes are models, not reality. And software-meets-law involves creating models of models – “They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.”

And so on to ebilling, that troubled child of the End of History in the 1990s. Now Thirtysomething and living in a changed world.

Recording the time you’ve spent working on different things is not, in itself, a bad idea. Daily and hourly rates can be important for ensuring people are fairly paid and that some regard is had to the time required to do things in assessing what’s worth doing and how to prioritise it over other things.

The trouble comes when you over-optimise it. Requiring not only a summary of the days and hours worked, but a move-by-move account of the steps taken. What could possibly go wrong? Hmm, they seem to be recording excessive time and I’ve heard they’re even buying software to help them do it more efficiently and incentivising their people to record more time. Tsk. Hmmm… I know, let’s promulgate some rules against abuses. Sure, it signals distrust but it avoids having to communicate and plan better (who wants to do that?), and this crowd will *never* game the system. Oops, we seem to have created a really complicated, tedious system and – surprise! – there appears to be some gaming going on. No problem, let’s get AI to help us analyse it all and let’s allocate more people to review compliance with the rules, strike out entries that don’t comply and negotiate things down. Bit costly in tech and staff, and still not working that well, but what else can we do? Oh god, now they’re using genAI to write narratives…. OK, you get the drift.

I’m not an absolutist about legal work – I think there’s an important place for time-based as well as fixed pricing and other ‘value-based’ approaches.

But I believe there are better ways of implementing. They involve a focus on communication, improvement and a more strategic look at work and value, with allocation of time and money to work and outputs in a *less* granular way. Paradoxical as that may sound.

All of which is to say that we’re weeks rather than months away now with the Juralio pricing functionality release. Watch this space.

Photo: by me recently, on a country walk



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