“If you want professionals to be more entrepreneurial, bin timesheets”

Sameer Karim, owner of DWS Legal, believes timesheets kill creativity and damage the economy

When you walk into the Leicester offices of DWS Legal, the energy and enthusiasm strike you immediately. Lawyers and the centrally located admin team interact animatedly amid the open-plan space, and you feel that the whole firm is working together with a strong sense of mission. Achieving such a buzz is the aim of most organisations (as are accounts showing a doubling of turnover every year for the past three years). Yet in 2008, the firm was on the edge. Back then, new owner Sameer Karim was racking his brains for a solution to halt the slide. What he came up with not only saved the business, he believes, but also allowed it to thrive. His idea? To tear up all timesheets across all areas of the business.

“I decided to dump timesheets and introduce fixed fees when the financial crisis hit,” says Sameer. “We had to do something to set ourselves apart, or we’d die. I was 28, it was 2008, I’d just become the firm’s owner and the work had dried up. During the Christmas of that year it was make or break. The banks were knocking. I took a week off, went abroad and all I did for that week was rip up the rulebook and brainstorm. I knew I couldn’t look at us as a law firm any more – otherwise it would be the end. Instead I had to view the firm as a business that provides law services. That mindset led to the move from timesheets to fixed fees.”

Sameer launched another service on the back of the crisis: a “lawyers on wheels” concept, where solicitors drive to clients without charging call-out or mileage fees. Both this and the timesheet ban were designed to remove traditional barriers between lawyer and client. “I was inspired more by the pizza-delivery industry than the law world,” explains Sameer. “Forgetting about traditional law firm models opened up a world of opportunities. We had nothing to lose. It was about surviving and keeping the brand alive.”

The reaction of clients to DWS Legal’s dumping of timesheets and its new “lawyers on wheels” service was positive, but fellow law firms were less enthusiastic. “It annoyed our competitors,” says Sameer. “They thought we were offering something unworkable, irresponsible and that was ultimately going to fail.”

But eight years on it shows no sign of failing. Quite the opposite. Clients attracted by the certainty of fixed fees have been getting in touch ever since. By 2011, two years after first binning timesheets, DWS Legal had grown from two partners to four and from eight staff to 40. There has been a six-fold increase in turnover since 2010, too. “If you start doing things differently and make a noise to show that you’re more commercial, more pragmatic and more aware of clients’ needs than your competitors, you don’t need to do much else,” says Sameer. “Your clients spread the word for you.”

At first, the focus was on deleting the timesheet model from non-litigation services, where work is relatively predictable and therefore more suited to fixed rates. But soon after that, Sameer removed timesheets from DWS’s litigation department. This was more challenging due to the unpredictable nature of contentious work. However, the firm has not looked back. “No one in my litigation department has used a timesheet for four years,” Sameer says. “Clients continue to choose us simply because they know how much they’ll be charged from the outset.”

However, Sameer also talks about the downside of not using timesheets too. He says: “It’s true that a few transactions do go above the fixed fee we’ve quoted, but you must take that on the chin. Where we found ourselves in 2008 and our direction of travel since then has dictated that, ultimately, client acquisition is the priority. We recently undertook a piece of litigation work where we probably did about 30% more work than we’d budgeted for. Technically we made a 30% loss. However, the same client has subsequently handed us more work because they love what we do. Does that mean we still made a 30% loss?”

To attempt to answer that question would, according to Sameer, put a drag on the entrepreneurial momentum his timesheet ban has created. “If you ask me for the exact profit and cost differential between fixed fees and timesheets, I can’t provide an answer,” he says. “I look at things very simply: we’re growing, winning awards and the value of the business is increasing. I don’t want to take time out in order to analyse everything and risk halting that momentum. I’m going forward on gut instinct and I definitely don’t want to create doubt.”

A uniquely entrepreneurial approach to law has led Sameer to a high point in his career and today, with the benefit of hindsight, he sees timesheets as not only bad for business, but also as a weight around the neck of the economy. He says: “I remember the typical client reaction when I told them my hourly rate back in the days when we used timesheets. Their enthusiasm, optimism and drive would instantly drain away. They were thinking: ‘I’m going to be billed no matter what’. If an entrepreneur has 20 ideas but know they must pay an unknown amount for each one, they will probably forget 19. But who’s to say all 19 are going to fail? That’s why timesheet culture damages the economy.

“By killing timesheets we’ve released the shackles,” continues Sameer. “As a young lawyer I was governed by timesheets. They were the Big Brother of the office – watching over you all the time, making you edgy and neither allowing you to show your true personality, nor be creative. Every minute had to be recorded. It was stifling. My goal now is to create a business filled with entrepreneurial business people who are also lawyers. That indeed is a powerful combination.”

If you work for a law firm, take a look around you. Do timesheets rule everyone around you? Are you reading this article against a ticking clock? Of course time must be accounted for in any business, but would your firm become more innovative, more entrepreneurial, better equipped in a fast-moving world and more attractive to clients if you were less of a slave to the timesheet?