Conventional wisdom. Only fools would contradict it, right? In the legal timekeeping world, conventional wisdom can be boiled down to this little nugget: Keep time as you do your work.

Forever, this has been the best practice. The wisdom everyone has adopted. Everyone—industry experts, consultants, and our competitors— say, “Everyone should keep time contemporaneously.”

And indeed, research—including our own—shows that in the absence of automated time capture technology, contemporaneous timekeeping is more accurate than reconstructing your timesheets.

When I had my first job at a law firm in 1979, 35 years ago, there was no automated time capture technology. People were using corded phones, electric typewriters, thick phone books and answering machines that used cassette tapes. Now, of course, we have tablets, smartphones, notebook computers, text messaging, voicemail, email, and the inconceivable network that is the Internet.

I know a lot can change in 35 years. But not human behavior. That never really changes. Our pediatrician used to say kids come factory wired. Ditto that for attorneys too.

So I’m here to tell you that while it would be peachy if everyone could follow the conventional wisdom and become a contemporaneous timekeeper, it ain’t gonna happen.

People Are People

No matter how hard the industry has tried to convince timekeepers to keep time contemporaneously, it has not achieved a high success rate. We have done extensive data mining and analysis of law firm timekeeping databases, and time and again we find a 40% contemporaneous to 60% reconstructionist split.

Human behavior, as we intuitively know, is a remarkably fixed thing, individual by individual. So it is the height of absurdity to assume that if you give everybody fabulous software built for contemporaneous timekeeping, everybody will become a contemporaneous timekeeper.

After 35 years, it’s time to stop preaching a “best practice” that can’t be implemented. (Or at least not without a magic wand.)

Believing in this notion set forth by our competitors —that a product can change a reconstructionist into a contemporaneous timekeeper—is a bit akin to believing in a fairy godmother.

Shift Your Objective

If you want to fix timekeeping, it’s flawed logic to work at the firm level. You have to get down to the individual user. Study what they actually do, not what you want them to do. Don’t allow someone to cram your needs into their product’s canned sets of rules and processes. Instead, provide tools that support multiple user behaviors that can make your timekeepers into better timekeepers, no matter their style.

What do I think is the best practice? Your focus must be on this objective alone: Timesheets that are complete and accurate, and prepared with the least amount of effort. Allow your timekeepers to maintain whatever style works for them: contemporaneous, reconstructionist or collaborative. Then, find software tools that support those different behaviors.

My last bit of advice: When you hire your vendors, make sure they know that it is 2014 and that technology is here to serve the needs of your timekeepers, rather than the other way around. Find the right vendor who can and will create the right solution to meet your specific needs.