The New Normal

The Lure of Precise Numbers and the ‘Truthiness’ of Timesheets

Posted Jun 9, 2011 1:31 PM CDT
By Patrick J. Lamb

Patrick Lamb

Political satirist Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, coined the term “truthiness,” meaning “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

In his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“The American mind seems extremely vulnerable to the belief that any alleged knowledge which can be expressed in figures is in fact as final and exact as the figures in which it is expressed.”

Drawing on these concepts, Charles Seife has written a book, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, about the power of numbers and their ability to mislead. He begins the book with a story from American history, Joseph McCarthy, speaking to a group of women: “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

Over the following days, McCarthy changed his number, increasing it to 207, then decreasing it to 57 and later 81. The upshot, as we now know, was that there was never a list and McCarthy never had “numbers.” But the exactitude of his claim catapulted the country into a period few would care to repeat.

While these concepts offer food for thought in any number of important areas, I thought about them last night (confession, cocktails were involved) in the context of timesheets and hourly billing. The exactitude of time sheets—six minute increments—and the precision of reporting—two numbers after the decimal point—suggest such a precise measurement that it must be right. Proofiness in action.

Timekeepers are afraid of round numbers—they look contrived. If someone spends exactly one hour doing something, the odds are high that they will record .9 or 1.1. Proofiness in action.

But just as Joseph McCarthy never had any names on the list, the fact is the numbers are irrelevant. Check out Jay Shepherd’s post, “Billable Showers.” It’s the story of a senior associate who spent considerable time researching her clever jurisdictional argument, only to find out several hours into her work that the law had changed and her argument could not be made. The next day, she had a moment of inspiration in the shower that literally won the case. The proofiness of the time sheet completely obfuscates the value of the work.

Timesheets: The truthiness of proofiness.

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.