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Law: Barcodes make light work: Sharon Wallach checks out how to cash in on supermarket technology

A Watford firm is using supermarket technology in a novel and efficient time-recording exercise.

Solicitors at Penman Johnson wield light pens over barcodes to note the time spent on each of their cases in preference to the age-old method of noting each action by hand.

A barcode is created for each client. The light pens, containing lasers, are electronically tagged to each fee earner. Each time a transaction is completed - a letter written, a telephone call answered - the pen is 'swiped' over time-unit, time-rate and work-type codes.

The information is then stored in the pen, which can carry up to 800 transactions before being transferred on to the computer.

The firm's acquisition of the system came about following a DTI initiative consultancy carried out in July 1992. 'Basically, they told us to update our management sytem, which meant we had to computerise,' says Ian Avent, one of the firm's three partners. 'Because we had delayed getting computerised, we ended up with very up-to-date kit.'

Mr Avent says the system has several advantages. It provides a time read-out, which clarifies any disputes over bills. Most important, it saves time and money. The manual method is inefficient as, in practice, time-recording is often left to the end of the day, and some actions are inevitably forgotten. The light pen system is so easy and fun to use that this rarely happens. 'If you forget to put down a letter, you've kissed goodbye to pounds 10 or pounds 12,' Mr Avent says. 'Multiplied over a year, that could come to several thousand pounds.'

The system cost around pounds 8,000 to install; the pens, of which the firm has 10, are pounds 500 each. Has the system paid for itself? Definitely, Mr Avent says. 'We've certainly seen an increase in billing and in the money coming into the firm. It allows us to have management information at our fingertips. This means that we don't have to employ someone to imput, and we are saving on a computer operative, so in effect the system paid for itself in the first year.'