The Task Code Conundrum
What’s in a word? Lack of precision often. The terminology in the legal industry around phases, task codes, and tasks can drive you crazy. The word “task” is particularly imprecisely used. Generally in our industry, the term task does not actually apply to a task in the traditional sense of the word but actually applies to work performed during a phase or a sub-phase of a matter. Confused? So are many of us. Let’s de-bunk the most common misuse of this terminology and get everyone on the same page.
The root problem dates back to the design of the ABA task codes and the Uniform Tasks Based Management System (UTMBS). The purpose of these coding systems was to enable electronic invoicing. The code set has been used primarily in the areas of litigation and the cost codes around the management of expenses and disbursement.
Take the example of discovery in the ABA Litigation Code Set. The phase code for “Discovery” is L300, which represents the discovery phase and the task codes include “Written Discovery,” “Document Production,” “Depositions,” “Expert Discovery,” “Discovery Motions,” and “Other Discovery.” However, these labels all represent sub-phases not tasks. The “real tasks” lie underneath.
Things got worse when many clients and law firms decided they didn’t like the ABA labels and changed them to fit their needs. For example, the official label for L200 is “Pre-trial Pleadings and Motions” but some clients want it to read “Pleading and Motions.” As a result, within a single firm the same code can have slightly different meanings for different clients or for internal firm purposes.
The problem with all these codes is that a significant number of lawyers don’t use them accurately. Anecdotally, I’ve been told on numerous occasions that as many as 60 to 80% of time entries have inaccurate codes. Much of the problem stems from the fact that there are over 29 codes in the litigation code set. A choice of 29 codes is a lot, especially when you need to enter codes all of the time. If a lawyer bills 8 hours per day, they’ll need to make somewhere between 8 and 20 time entries per day or 2,000 to 5,000 time entries per year.
My general experience with look-up lists on frequents activities is that they should ideally number less than 5 entries and no more than 10. After 10, the accuracy of picking the correct selection diminishes pretty quickly. This conclusion is based on best practices that emerged from my experience designing and managing document management systems, which have exactly the same problem.
While the UTMBS tasks codes are good for billing, they actually don’t help you effectively price or estimate a matter. When you go back and look at a prior matter, there is little information about critical details. In most U.S. litigations, the critical details that make the difference in cost is number of motions, number of documents, and number of depositions. This is next to impossible to ascertain because traditionally no one tracks the “real tasks” underneath the sub-phases.
To understand this better, let’s turn back to the task label that are really sub-phases, such as “Document Production,” a sub-phase during which many specific tasks are carried out. Examples of these tasks include collecting documents, processing documents, planning for document review, reviewing documents, quality assurance regarding the reviews, and producing the documents. Some sub-phases are simpler but still problematic. For example, in the area of “Depositions,” you have two fundamental tasks, take a deposition and defend a deposition. These are very different things, but under e-billing they all get grouped under “Depositions.”
If you notice, all actual tasks start with a verb. Under each of these tasks are a multitude of activities that may be performed by a multitude of people. Let’s take the example of taking a deposition:
•Schedule the deposition (secretary/paralegal)
•Pull the hot documents (associate)
•Review the documents (partner)
•Build an outline (partner)
•Take the deposition (partner)
•Update the factual timeline (associate)
As you can see, we have three people involved in this one actual task, which means that process improvement may simply require improving the speed with which one of these activities gets done.
Measuring and getting to this level of detail is the nirvana. However, to get there, your current technology is going to need to evolve, and the partners in your firm will need to agree on the list of tasks and activities in each phase and sub phase. I have the answer on the technology, but I am not revealing it yet (you will have to wait until the fall).
What you should do in the interim is establish a limited set of tasks codes in any matter and use a time entry system that can limit the list of available codes to those that are available for a particular matter. This is going to create more work in setting up matters, but it’s the price you’ll have to pay for better data. The other critical interim step is to create a scope or assumptions that go with any budget and write a post action report on any matter to understand the difference between your assumptions and reality.
As I said, I’ll have a more complete answer for you this fall.
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