Legal time and billing software has seen a great deal of change over the past four decades. From punch cards to Web-based time entry, the industry has and continues to make impressive technological leaps. Here is a brief synopsis of some of the time and billing “rites of passage,” if you will, from 1970 to more current times.
The utilization of time and billing software technology within law firms began in the early 1970’s. Prior to this, manual ledger cards were the standard. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s also produced the legal service bureaus. Under the service bureau process, firms would provide a list of their master files which included client names, addresses, attorney rates and so forth. Then, on a weekly basis, firms would send in massive numbers of paper time sheets. Each time sheet would include about 10 time entries on a single page. This was thought to be a major advancement over the very first “time slips” which were tear-off slips about the size of a bank check. The first “short-hand” time-entry codes were printed on the bottom of the paper time sheets so that the attorney could just write in “TC” for “Telephone Call” instead of writing out the entry. Each attorney needed a “cheat-sheet” that listed clients and matters. The time narrative had to be carefully printed in little blocks, one character per block. It was common to only allow 250 characters per time-entry. Firms sending boxes of time sheets would also include a manual tally sheet. The service bureau had rooms full of key punch operators; one operator would enter the time sheets, and a second operator would re-enter the same entry as a validation. A control person would then check the computer to verify that all time sheets had been validated, and the computer totals matched the firm provided tally sheets.
At month-end, the firm would send the final batch of time sheets, along with the billing and receipt entries from the prior month. With month-end data the service bureau would print out final bills. Client bills were often printed on special paper divided into two sides; the client bill would be printed on the left-side of the page, and a duplicate copy for the firm would be printed on the right-side. An innovative micro-perforation down the center allowed these pages to be split, without having to use valuable computer and printer resources to print separate copies. The final bills and reports were then shipped back to the law firm for mailing. Many times these were sent by air freight to firms as a premium service. Did you notice a missing step? Back in these days attorneys did not edit pre-bills! Can we please roll the clocks back?
When billing was completed, the service bureau ran various reports including attorney productivity, A/R and a summary of client/matter and billing payment history. These were all printed on wide format “green bar” paper; there were no laser printers at the time. Modern time and billing systems today produce the same exact reports that were generated in the old service bureaus. As a matter of fact, the DBR (Detailed Billing Report) is a common term still used today in many firms.
By the mid 1970s, in-house systems were being implemented at most large firms. Software that was similar to the service bureau type was now being provided with minicomputers and terminals to handle both data and word-processing. An early dilemma was that the manufacturers of word-processing systems could not handle “data-processing,”. These early systems could only understand words on a screen, not numbers. As great as they were, word-processing systems like IBM® Display Writers, NBI and “Centrex” couldn’t perform math calculations necessary for billing. The Wang systems, followed by similar systems from Barrister, quickly changed all of this. They were able to run both word-processing and data-processing applications such as billing, A/P, G/L, conflicts and early litigation support applications. Major hardware providers like IBM®, DEC and HP were right on their heels. In those days the “iron” (hardware) was very expensive, and decisions to purchase were based primarily on hardware technology and field service. Software was secondary, and implementation and training services were usually bundled in for “free” with a system. If you decided to buy HP hardware, you would choose between CompuTrac and Harris-Paulson software. If you wanted DEC, Quorum was the software of choice. These computers were so “advanced” that they had 300MB disk packs that fit into hard drives the size of today’s washing machines. The disk packs looked like 78 RPM records sealed in a large round clear plastic housing. The IT person would remove and store these disk packs as a way of loading application software and data into the systems. For example, month-end billing necessitated a complete set of dedicated disk packs. Vendors benefited from this as they could control the environment by having a terminal on every desktop. At $3,000/piece, it could get costly for every secretary and staff person to have a terminal, but that’s what was required. Typically, these systems would cost an average of $500,000 to a few million dollars. In addition, firms had to order countless other hardware components just to get a system installed. For example, for every 12-16 terminals a “terminal server” was required, which was essentially a minicomputer dedicated to feeding information from the main minicomputer to the terminals. In addition, many firms installed elaborate glass-walled rooms with raised flooring for massive wiring. These rooms were not in the basement; on the contrary, they were strategically built right near the main reception area so that visitors and customers could see their impressive technology investment. For the first time, vendors were able to support clients remotely with “high-speed” 1200 baud modems. Dozens of modems could be installed with dedicated phone lines for remote office access.
The early time and billing systems were “command-driven.” These systems typically would provide a single line on the screen, with a blinking cursor. The trained operator would then enter highly cryptic entries in order to perform tasks. For example, “$opertime” might produce an equally cryptic screen that allowed for time- entry from paper time sheets. The screens were easy to read since they were either green with light green text or white with black text. The more “commands” the operator knew, the more tasks could be accomplished. Law firms had finally moved into the information age. For the first time a firm had technology that moved beyond a telephone system or a copier. There was no turning back. One of the nice things about this technology was that the IT staff, by and large, had to keep just one computer working, the mini-computer(s) in the computer room. The desktop terminals were just a little bit more than a picture tube, and they were easy to swap out with replacements. The time and billing systems of this period were some of the best ever. Although they lacked advanced looking screens, these systems were loaded with capabilities. If you were running Wang Informatics, Quorum MP1500, CompuTrac HP3000 or Barrister CFMS, you had a powerful tool. Many systems today are still lacking the features that were present in these old stalwarts. These systems were also very batch and process-oriented. Even with the large 300 MB drives and memory measured in megabytes, most system-wide activities required overnight processing. Historic data was usually saved in summary format only; month-end reports had to be run and saved as hard-copy since they couldn’t be recreated at a later date. Month-end closing procedures were sensitive to specific batch updates and in larger firms required an entire weekend to run. Furthermore, many times month-end reports were run from duplicate copies of the database on a back-up server, since it was too taxing to run reports and also do daily processing on the same system.