Setting Up Your Time, Billing, and Accounting (T/B/A) Team to Succeed!
Many firms don’t give much thought to taking affirmative steps to ensure that time/billing/accounting teams have great success, leading to overall business success. These five key tips will ensure success for your critical back office team.
1. Track and Enter Your Own Time
Capturing billable and nonbillable time is critical to making reasonable productivity analyses of your entire firm. Whether you are a solo practitioner, or you work in a corporate legal environment of 500 staff members (or somewhere in between), tracking time (whether billable or not) is the only way you can make data driven business decisions relating to staff efficiency. And, requiring each staff member to enter their billable and non-billable day themselves not only makes each person think about it, but relieves your bookkeepers of the responsibility of entering time, freeing them up to act on other critical tasks.
Many lawyers over the years have told me, in no uncertain terms, that entering time is an arduous task, that it is primarily a staff exercise and not a lawyer’s exercise. Nothing could be more old-fashioned and further from the truth in 2018. Lawyers who capture their own time (and enter it themselves) not only capture more time, but also are more conscientious in making sure the time is accurate and captured for every event, whether a court appearance or an email. There are many software tools that help lawyers capture time more easily than putting pen to paper and asking someone else to enter it - including mobile time entry apps, practice management software and automatic time capturing tools. Bottom line, require lawyers and paralegals to enter their own time and do not ask your bookkeeping staff to type it in for them.
2. Return Prebills and Expense Reports Timely
Whether you bill monthly or not, your time/billing/accounting team is easily stressed out when lawyers fail to return pre-bills (sometimes also called draft bills) in a timely manner. It goes without saying that getting your bills out is the first step in improving cash flow and getting paid. If you hold back pre-bills, then ultimately billing timely is curtailed, getting paid timely is inhibited and cash-flow is impacted. It is just bad for business. While there are a lot of stressors on lawyers beyond reviewing prebills, few things are worse than not having cash on hand to pay your firm’s expenses, including payroll. And that stresses your bookkeeping staff out, as well.
3. Respect the Concerns of TBA Team
If your bookkeeper comes to you with a concern, a worry or a confidential issue, make sure you give them your attention. Often, your bookkeeper staff will be the first to pick up on what can become bigger issues. Bookkeepers can tell, for example, if timekeepers are not keeping their time conscientiously, accurately and/or if timekeepers are missing opportunities to bill. They are often the first line of defense when it comes to banking errors, trust account anomalies, or if a partner is spending too much money on frivolous purchases or not generating their share of revenues. In fact, many times, asking for and reviewing monthly reports WITH your bookkeeper or firm CFO is a method of making sure that their concerns and thoughts are heard and considered regularly.
4. Checks & Balances
If possible, divide and conquer responsibilities. Simply said, don’t have one person responsible for all billing, paying bills, receiving payments, managing trust funds and reconciling the bank accounts. If you are a small firm, perhaps you, or a trusted family member on your behalf, complete the monthly bank reconciliation to have that sense of checks and balances. If you’re a larger firm, you should absolutely divide and conquer financial responsibilities. Establish and agree upon reports that must without fail be produced for the partners every month. Set up a monthly review meeting to go over the reports and ensure the integrity and honesty of your staff. I can’t tell you how many times, we, at Affinity, have been called into firms after an unsavory employee embezzled thousands of dollars or put the law firm at risk financially. This includes bookkeepers who’ve given themselves a pay raise, purposefully diverted client payments to their own personal accounts, spent firm money on personal items and, even, misappropriated trust funds – which leads to problems with the state/provincial bar and threatens partners’ law licenses.
5. Keep Your Time/Billing/Accounting Software Current, Offer Regular Periodic Training and Stop Relying on Manual Excel Spreadsheets
Keeping your time/billing/accounting software current with the most stable version of software is critical to ensuring that your staff isn’t spinning its wheels to correct accounting issues or errors sometimes caused by the software. Often, however, you’ll find that it’s not the software that’s the problem, but rather your bookkeeping staff that simply don’t know how to use the software employed by your firm. Regularly scheduled on site or remote training with experts in your software package is critical to software success. Can your software produce the reports you need instead of asking your staff to manually produce Excel spreadsheets? Get those reports built and programmed to save your bookkeeping team time and stress. Often, software is developed on a platform which can easily be used to create reports on the data in the database rather than asking your accounting team to glean data out of the software and retype the same data into an Excel spreadsheet.
With just a few thoughtful changes, you can ease the minds of your bookkeeping staff, protect your business from any potential fraud and make the lives of the people who keep your business afloat less stressful and more streamlined.