Corrs Chambers Westgarth announced this week that the firm has purchased automatic time billing software with the ability to track and report on a lawyer's daily work activities. Not everyone agrees it's a good thing. Michael Bradley, the managing partner of Marque Lawyers, shares his view.
I think the legal profession has finally jumped the shark.
I fairly regularly hear law firms announce new initiatives that make me wonder if there's some ironic conspiracy going on out there and the punch-line is just around the corner. Minter Ellison's plan to start charging by the tweet, announced in July, is one recent example. And it's nothing new. Way back in 2005 I was at a conference when Clayton Utz gleefully reported that it was giving a BlackBerry to every lawyer in the firm so they could charge time on the bus.
But this - Corrs' new software Time Builder, which monitors every application the lawyers use all day and turns their movements into a timesheet - is beyond funny and into the field of surreal. If I was working at Corrs, I'd be feeling more than a little creeped out right now.
So, let's get this straight - the firm is not satisfied that I, motivated only by the assurance that if I don't make the daily chargeable hours target I'll be sacked, can be trusted to get every possible minute I can onto my timesheet. No, it feels the need to help me by remotely monitoring every move I make, whether it's surfing the Kardashians, tweeting my friends with tonight's drinking arrangements, or desktop publishing birthday party invitations. Or doing legal work. And then, by some technological miracle (I imagine they call it an 'algorithm' - love that word), the magical software converts my day into a series of time entries.
I wonder to myself, "How will the computer describe the time I spent on SMH online? Will it default to 'unspecified research' or apply the more sinister code, 'un-chargeable knowledge gathering'? Or just 'WARNING: TIME BANDIT'? Will it be reading my emails? Or sorting them according to key words?"
No doubt I'm being stupid but, seriously, who on earth could be delighted to learn that they're going to be subjected to this? Especially anyone who calls themselves a "professional". Of all the steps our profession has been taking, by progressive inches, to dehumanise lawyers over the years, this just screams out for someone to say "enough!"
I didn't study law with the thought in the back of my mind that the sole measure of my value in years to come would be minutes on a timesheet. Surely nobody did. But, even accepting - as almost all lawyers do - that the best way to charge for legal services is by reference to time (umm, not me), it can't have been part of anyone's personal bargain that they would be prepared to shred their privacy, professional integrity and human dignity to this degree.
Am I overreacting? Do you want a webcam on your screen watching your movements through the day? A security pass on the toilet door to monitor your personal habits?
But you are okay with a computer somewhere in the building (or in the Cloud) tallying up the minutes you spend emailing, tweeting, surfing, typing and making diary appointments - and extending not just right into the depths of your computer, but through to your desk phone and even your mobile? Will it be reporting on how many texts you sent? What the firm chooses to do with all this data is up to it, but the data will now exist - and to the nth degree of detail.
Oh, and by the way, I am not sure Corrs has quite thought through the implications of this. Given that the software allows for manual override of the timesheets, will clients be asking for the raw data when they want to query a bill? I know that if we were arguing with them about a costs order, we'd be issuing a subpoena for their electronic records to see exactly what their lawyers were doing while they were ostensibly charging time on the file.
I was going to make some jokes about monitoring and charging for bowel movements, but I've realised that this isn't amusing anymore. I'm outraged that this software even exists. But that's different to being surprised. I'm not surprised.