Clint Eastwood, Thought Control, and Big Helmets: What the Next Iteration in Time Recording Will Look Like

Firms know that the best timekeeping solutions are those which require the least effort on the part of lawyers. So, in reality what would such a system look like? This article draws on inspiration from the past to share what the future of timekeeping looks like.

I suppose I must have been young and impressionable when I went to see the movie Firefox. But it was 1982, and I was on the cusp of starting my career in the legal IT sector. This is maybe why a central idea in this film has stuck in my imagination ever since. Firefox is a not terribly good Cold War potboiler. In it, a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood is the only man for the job of stealing a super-advanced Soviet fighter aircraft. The trick with this plane—the eponymous Firefox—is that its lethally sophisticated weapons system is controlled by the pilot’s thoughts alone, which are conveyed to the missiles via the pilot’s large black helmet. Of course it’s a Soviet plane so it only recognizes thoughts in Russian. But happily that’s not a problem for Clint who speaks the language flawlessly thanks to his Russian mother. In the end, of course, he successfully steals Firefox, brings its technology to the West, and by implication saves the world for democracy. Movie goers could breathe a sigh of relief. But I also came away thinking, “How would it be if, in the future, we really could control objects in the world by just thinking about them?” The good news is that a mere 36 years later, we almost can.

The Timekeeping of Your Dreams

I’m now going to insert what the movie-makers call a jump cut. Which is to say I’m making a hard hand-break turn and taking you to a conversation I had in the U.S. around two years ago with the IT director of a leading law firm. The topic was timekeeping, and the refrain was familiar: if only it was easier to capture time. Outside the bounds of what was available, what the firm really wanted was a time recording system that would know what a lawyer was doing, who are they doing it for, and how long are they doing it, without the lawyer having to do anything at all. Then the firm would have the timekeeping of its dreams: a system that records every second of time, doesn’t take any time to do so, is completely accurate, is no trouble for lawyers, and leaves nothing out. We laughed about the impossibility of this idea. Then I thought: “If only we could give lawyers a big helmet like Clint’s?”

Time Recording Through the Ages

So what we’ve seen in the last 15 years is that there’s been a gradually increasing level of sophistication in timekeeping systems. In the beginning, the first, “traditional” time recording systems were really just glorified IT versions of keeping notes using a pen and paper. It’s true that some lawyers still find this comforting and workable, but it is, nevertheless, a laborious way of capturing time—and as such will tend to lead to time being missed, with an accompanying loss of revenue.

Next, came passive time recording. This keeps track of the electronic footprint of a lawyer’s activity and then prompts him or her to fill in the details of a phone call, say, or an email. It is hugely helpful, but still calls for effort on the lawyer’s part. It’s also disliked in some circles because it tends to lead to an over-reliance on the prompts which potentially aren’t converted into time records until long (maybe weeks) after the interaction took place, which is another source of inaccuracies.

To obviate that problem, the next iteration to come along was contemporaneous time recording. These systems take advantage of the capabilities of mobile technology, offering a prompt to complete the time record immediately after every activity. This has the advantage of avoiding false memory syndrome. But again, the lawyer is adding in the details manually; and again this approach has its detractors—although they are mainly IT people who are not fond of the add-ins and plug-ins required by contemporaneous systems which can cause some performance issues.

The good news is that the next iteration in time recording is nearly with us and is heading in the direction of Clint, in his plane, firing missiles by just thinking about it. The bad news (depending on your point of view) is that there are no helmets.

The Revolution Is Here

Okay, I have to come clean and admit that in reality, there is, as far as I know, no timekeeping system that can actually read a lawyer’s thoughts (some of you will be relieved to hear this). But there is now a system which can do the next best thing: it can read natural language and turn that into a time record. This is a huge step forward.

How does it work? Well, of course it’s a form of AI (artificial intelligence) where machines take information from the real world and process it to make deductions. Such technology can analyze unstructured data and turn it into structured data: it can turn a lawyer’s thoughts into fully formed time narratives. We are calling this revolution “intelligent timekeeping”. The genius of it is that it can take natural language—or words as we think them—and turn that into a structured time record.

It doesn’t matter how the natural language is expressed. You can type in: “Had a meeting with Clarkes about the bridge issue for an hour on Tuesday”. You can hand-write it on a screen with a stylus. Or you can say it out loud to a dictation machine. It makes no difference. The big breakthrough is that lawyers no longer have to fill in fields in a structured way to capture an activity. An intelligent timekeeping system intelligently analyzes the input and compiles the time record by extracting the salient elements: client, date, subject, phase, task, and duration, in fact anything that is required to complete a time record. If it’s all in there, a time record can be created.

The system can even separate out a number of records contained in one entry: “Had a meeting with Clarkes about the bridge issue for an hour on Tuesday the 3rd and a second meeting with Thompsons about the same issue on Thursday the 5th from 3:00 pm to 4.30.”  Two accurate time records will be created.

Does it really work? Yes, because the technology to do this exists today. And it will help lawyers complete time records every single time, because the submission doesn’t have to be perfect. Even if all the data isn’t supplied, for example only three fields out of six are communicated, the system will still complete three fields on the lawyer’s behalf. So that’s half the data that the lawyer doesn’t need to add.

Yes, I acknowledge that it’s not quite the same as being a steely-eyed missile-man defeating totalitarianism with the power of his mind. But nevertheless, this new technology is set to revolutionize time recording because it radically streamlines the process of entering time into a system. As I said, there are no helmets. But a Bluetooth headset will work just as well.

Find out more about Tikit’s time recording Carpe Diem

Connect with Mark on LinkedIn and Twitter