They were printed on one side of a yellow sheet of paper. On Friday of each week, before you left for the weekend, you filled in each daily log and detail, and forwarded the sheet (with attachments) to Billing. If you were gone on Friday afternoon, you had to do it first thing Monday morning, so that the Billing Department had time to tabulate and generate a billing report before the partners met in the late morning.

We called the exercise "fiction-writing" or "filling out the swindle sheets." The partners called it time & billing. No, the clients were not actually swindled. It was just that the tools for time & billing, all those years ago, were bad. Clumsy. Untimely. Manual.

Today, time & billing systems have evolved into a rich set of utilities that enable accountants to manage workflow, assign tasks and review roles, capture information about costs in a dozen different ways, and produce meaningful reports.

While the best programs have their differences, they do share some common traits:

• They are flexible and customizable.

• They are Internet-accessible to allow for the capture of information from an unlimited number of places and devices.

• Billing and invoicing is likewise flexible, easily tailored to the needs of each client.

• Reports enable management to assess performance of staff, tasks, clients and even types of service performed.

For 2012, we assessed a total of eight leading software packages for practice management/time & billing. Each of these meets the criteria to be tops in its field.

 

Practice Relief

AccountantsWorld

Hauppauge, N.Y.

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsworld.com

Pricing: $40 per month or $395 per year.

Practice Relief is the online time & billing system that operates either as an integrated part of the AccountantsWorld Power Practice system or as a stand-alone system. Designed for accounting firms, Practice Relief uses a desktop module with integrated wizards to provide both basic and advanced timekeeping, and billing and analysis services.

The time & billing system enables tasks entered in Practice Relief to automatically generate invoices in Accounting Relief, with all the journal entries created behind the scenes. In addition, Payroll Relief synchronizes with Practice Relief -- payroll tasks performed for an employer in Payroll Relief get automatically transferred to Practice Relief, generating an invoice in either Practice Relief or Accounting Relief for the client.

Key features include the ability to set up for entry of standard users, clients, projects and expenses, with up to 10 titles and corresponding default rates for each user; and the ability to generate invoice and billing with a variety of payment terms, delivery methods (print or e-mail), billing date of month, tax rates, billable versus non-billable tasks and expenses, flat fee versus computed billing, invoice prefix format, task and expense groupings, flat fee description, and invoice footer text. In addition, the system appointment scheduler synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook, and the software provides differing levels of security with appropriate rights to users, managers and administrators.

The most powerful assets of Practice Relief lie in its reporting architecture, which includes client realization rate reports, payment tracking, client ranking and analysis, and a list of receivables outstanding. Firm and user reports provide a summary of firm performance, invoice information, expense and task choices for the firm, and a list of users by rates, and analysis of user productivity.

New to the system is Practice Relief Mobile, which allows the user to add, edit or delete tasks and expenses for clients anytime and anywhere from any smartphone. Mobile updates sync instantly with Practice Relief to enable faster and easier client billing.

 

Big Time

BigTime Software

Chicago

(312) 346-4646

http://bigtime.net/

Pricing: Big Time Lite -- $25 monthly for up to five users; Big Time Premium - $150 monthly. Additional fee for additional users.

Big Time is customizable time & billing software for professional services firms, designed for easy adaptation and smooth integration with each firm's existing procedures for engagement workflow, billing and tasking. Designed to work seamlessly with Intuit's QuickBooks, the accounting version uses a familiar timesheet format and specialized billing formats for accounting that include multiple billing rates, write-up and write-down (for WIP analysis), and progress payments.

The timesheet formats enable staff to enter their daily time at the end of each day or use a timer, with simple reference to client lists and billing/expense codes. Big Time offers a flexible rate structure tailored to each client, with the ability to invoice standard time and expenses, or fixed-fee engagements -- with numerous printed invoice styles and limitless billing formats.

Big Time is designed to "learn" from the workflow style of the accounting firm. Each client plan is saved in the system as a "virtual template" from which engagements, special projects, rates, tasks and team members can be copied for new clients. Management reports can enable automatic analyses of WIP (by staffer, billing code, and client), capacity and other critical measures, and offer more than 150 standard report templates and endless report customization options.

Planned enhancements for Big Time Software include a Pro version of the mobile smartphone app later this summer.

 

Caseware Time 2011

CaseWare International Inc.

Toronto, Ont.

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single timekeeper -- $500; up to five timekeepers -- $1,000; additional timekeepers over five -- $175 per timekeeper. Annual license renewal -- 50 percent of license value.

Caseware Time is a practice management tool that enables time and expense entry, at-a-glance monitoring, improved billing, numerous ready-to-use reports, and powerful project and contact management.

Time 2011 uses a dashboard-style interface to summarize information, with specific task information in a Workflow layout. This Workflow layout is tailored to the requirements of each user in the firm, and provides access to documents, program features and the help system. The CaseView word processor with spreadsheet and database capabilities has the ability to create invoices, statements, marketing letters, customized working papers, forms, and schedules. Accountants can create professional-quality documents using CaseView's desktop publishing enhancements, which are directly linked to accounting data in Time.

With the Workflow you can access program features, documents and help from the same screen. The layout and content of proposed, interim, recurring and final invoices can be customized, as can the hundreds of sample reports. Time's document management system allows for organization of reports into hierarchical folders, allowing specific reports to be accessible by staff function. Time has over 200 reports that can be edited and filtered to manage the practice. In addition, Time provides built-in contact management with the ability to generate marketing and form letters with filtered address fields.

Features planned for Caseware Time 2012 include a hosted solution on the CaseWare Cloud, eliminating the need for installed software and SQL Server; Web functionality that integrates with CaseWare Collaborate and Working Papers; a new time and expense application with a redesigned websheet application; and a new time and expense mobile application for leading smartphones.

With the new mobile app, staff can input, view and edit their time and expense entries using a tablet or mobile device, including those running iOS 5.0.1, Android 4.0.1, and Blackberry OS 5.0.0 and 7.1.0.

 

ImagineTime

Imagine Time Inc. Bostic, N.C.

(877) 520-1525

http://www.imaginetime.com

Pricing: Single user, stand-alone -- starts at $295. Five-user networked -- starts at $795; Annual optional support is extra. Cloud subscription -- starts at $40 per month per user.

ImagineTime 10.0 is a remarkable upgrade to a strong and respected practice management utility. Its standard features include time and expense tracking, with flexible billing, credit card processing and both client and staff realization reporting. Invoices have highly customizable formatting, allowing companies to create bills with as much or as little detail as they like, including a click-to-pay link, discounts, narratives, itemized timeslips, mini-statements, account history, etc. The program also provides historical realization reporting by client, by staff and by work code.

With Version 10, released this year, they've added a new Finish-Line Workflow Module to enhance the existing Due Date Module. In addition to tracking the status of tasks and forms and assigning these to staff, the workflow module allows the user to create customized subtask steps to any given task, assigning to one or many staff, and tracking time and budgeting.

A strength of the program has always been the ability to adjust slips and expenses at billing and have reporting on realization, and this year a feature was added to allow this write-up and write-down to be done on the actual timeslip. Also added was the ability to integrate with more than one Quickbooks file, and enhancements to the reporting capabilities to support multi-office locations. For those users wanting just a basic time & billing menu and program, a new "ImagineTime Lite" option provides a streamlined look to the application.

Also new is a cloud-based subscription service, accessible from any computer with Internet Explorer, providing the convenience of a Web-based application with the richness of a full desktop application experience. Pricing includes the full suite of ImagineTime modules except Document Management.

Finally, ImagineTime 10.0 has continued its unique pricing options, which include the elimination of mandatory annual fees; pricing based on concurrent users; and a modular design that allows firms to add users and modules as they grow.

 

Practice CS

Thomson Reuters Dexter, Mich.

(800) 968-8900

http://cs.thomsonreuters.com

Pricing: Starts at $1,875.

Built around an effective set of dashboards and paperless billing, Practice CS is a time & billing application that also offers real-time access to essential firm, staff and client information.

The workflow application is organized into four dashboards, each a collection of real-time portlets containing information about the firm. Each dashboard is fully customizable, so that the software can provide the information most critical to the needs of each firm. The Staff Dashboard integrates with the firm's applications, such as Microsoft Outlook and Office, providing a convenient workflow hub and access to Outlook features.

The Client Dashboard offers contact info, demographic data, work-in-progress billing activity, payment history, current balances, and more. And from the Solutions portlet, users can access CS Professional Suite, Enterprise Suite, and other Thomson Reuters programs, in addition to documents such as Microsoft Word and Excel files. Through the Firm Dashboard, management and authorized staff can access the firm's receivables, billings, collections, profitability, staff productivity, and historical information. The Home Dashboard displays multiple portlets, such as system information, RSS feeds, the Practice CS News Feed, and Web pages.

Remote time entry is available from any computer or laptop connected to the Internet. The reporting system offers more than 150 custom formats in the reports library, including listing, production, billing, collection and reconciliation reports.

Among the new features in the current version are an expansion of the Mobile CS app, which allows real-time access to key Practice CS data, remote time and expense entry capabilities, and more from a variety of Apple and Android mobile devices; integration of client contact information with smartphones; new file transfer capabilities via Web-based client portals; and improved integration with other products in the CS Professional Suite, including the ability to import invoices from Accounting CS and the ability to extend Practice CS projects automatically when a client's return is extended in Ultra Tax CS.

 

NetSuite OpenAir

NetSuite San Mateo, Calif.

(877) NETSUITE

www.netsuite.com

Pricing: Starts at $49 per seat per month.

NetSuite OpenAir is a cloud-based professional services automation solution that provides resource management, project management, time and expense tracking, project accounting, and advanced billing and invoicing services.

This Software-as-a-Service suite is designed to enhance resource utilization, project margins and on-time project delivery while driving down IT costs, decreasing project accounting and overhead, and expediting billing cycles. NetSuite OpenAir helps improve invoicing accuracy, streamline revenue recognition and increase visibility for the services organization. It also empowers the mobile services organization with anytime, anywhere access in the cloud, supporting users where they work -- on the go, at client sites or remotely. For global services, the platform provides real-time access to employees worldwide, and offers multi-currency, multi-subsidiary, multi-taxation and multi-language support.

NetSuite OpenAir's timesheet management software allows the firm to track expenses and hours worked by project or task, and submit time and expenses for automated routing and approvals, either through standard workflow processes or rules unique to a client or project. The timesheet can be submitted from anywhere with a browser, including smartphones and tablets, and on-the-road employees can take a picture of their receipts on their phones and submit them even before their trip is over. The expense information integrates with virtually any accounting or ERP system, and is available with multi-currency support.

NetSuite OpenAir dashboards and reports enable the firm, management and employees to monitor, report and analyze overall project performance in real time, including resource utilization, profit margins, project budgets versus actual, and more. This includes the availability of more than 100 pre-configured and customizable reports, including historical and forecast reports on billing and utilization. Reports are organized into folders, integrate fully with Crystal Reports, and can be downloaded in Microsoft Word, Excel or PDF formats.

The information visible to each employee can be customized to allow visibility to critical information to assist in job performance while restricting confidential information to only those with permission.

 

ProSystem fx Practice (SaaS) and ProSystem fx Workstream

CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business

Riverwoods, Ill.

(800) 739-9998

http://cchgroup.com

Pricing: ProSystem fx Practice (SaaS) - annual subscription starts at $230. Price goes down as number of users increases. ProSystem fx Workstream - annual subscription starts at $175. Price goes down with additional users.

ProSystem fx Practice is a Software-as-a-Service implementation designed to increase staff productivity, increase profitability and better manage the resources of the firm. It does this through more effective time management -- reducing time spent on non-billable and non-productive tasks -- and through more effective capture and recording of cost information for each client and task.

The Time Capture and Clock utilities within Practice provide staff with the ability to record their own project and client hours -- daily, weekly or by use of clocks. Notification tools can be established to automatically remind staffers to record their hours; monitor unreleased and posted time; analyze productivity ratios for enhanced workflow; and track both billable and non-billable hours. Up-to-date, relevant information is available from the ProSystem fx suite-wide dashboard. A timekeeping dashboard uses Microsoft Outlook calendars, e-mail and to-do lists, as well as entering time spent.

Billing is completed online, and can be done immediately following completion of a project. Groups of clients can be billed simultaneously, and each client can receive multiple invoices or in-progress billing notices.

Integrated with these Practice tools is ProSystem fx Workstream, a flexible project management system that provides project templates for ease of set-up, "my views" for the administration of project lists, easy import of government forms, a dashboard for notifications and project assignments, and both standard and custom reporting.

 

Sage Timeslips

Sage Software Inc.

Lawrenceville, Ga.

(877) 816-7829

http://na.sage.com/sage-timeslips

Pricing: One user -- $499.99; each addition user - $249.99.

As this review was going to press, Sage released the newest and most enhanced version of its time & billing program, Sage Timeslips 2013. This newest version incorporates a number of features to support firm workflow, timekeeping, billing and reporting.

One of the most critical new features of the new release is an integrated calendar function, with the ability to share calendars with other staff members; click-and-drag functionality for easier calendar updating; the ability to color-code events; and pop-up meeting reminders and "to-do's" to support important billing activities. Other features include the ability to delete multiple slips; to print slip notes on pre-bill worksheets; to forecast "average days to pay;" and to attach receipts as files to bills submitted electronically.

The Billing Assistant helps to prepare billings for output in printed, RTF and PDF formats. The Billing Assistant helps to manage approvals, as well as multiple billing arrangements for each client - including hourly, flat, contingency, and percent complete. Bills can be adjusted for pre-printed forms and letterhead, and include the ability to create cover letters and envelopes for mailing.

Retained from previous versions, and from the 25 years of development work on Sage Timeslips, is a strong reporting capability that includes over 100 predefined reports designed specifically for accounting and professional services firms. These include both detailed and summary reports of every task performed in the firm, and are produced using an intuitive report wizard. The reporting system provides a report design tool that customizes reports based on information such as slips, clients, timekeepers, tasks, expenses and transactions.

Dave McClure is the president of Kent Associates, in Alexandria, Va., an independent testing laboratory and evaluation service.

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