This article responds to an inquiry from a partner in a law firm who felt she was treated unfairly because she deserved to be the designated billing partner for a new client matter, which she originated from a firm client that was originated by another partner. This was a particularly significant issue for this partner because the designation of “billing attorney” is an important criterion in her firm’s compensation system.
The partner who receives the call from a new client and who will perform or supervise the performance of the work on that file may be the most appropriate person to serve as the billing partner. However, the decision may not be as clear-cut when a firm has a team-oriented approach to business development and client service efforts.
Typically, an attorney who “gets the call” on a new matter from an existing client should, as a courtesy, confer with the partner who has served as billing partner before opening the matter. If the partner who has primarily served as billing partner is continuing to fulfill the billing partner’s responsibilities, he or she should usually be the billing partner for the new matter, absent any circumstances which might dictate otherwise.
“Getting the call,” by itself, does not mean that the partner should be the billing partner on the new matter. It may be that the historical billing partner has done an outstanding job of cross-selling, is continuing to fulfill billing-partner responsibilities (including those for the new matter) and should continue to be the billing partner for the new matter.
On the other hand, because a partner is the billing partner on the first matter ever opened for a client, does not necessarily mean that he or she should be the billing partner on all subsequent matters opened for that client. Such would be the case if the billing partner has not been performing the functions expected to be performed by the billing partner and has had no role in developing the new matter. By way of illustration, Partner A receives a call from a midlevel manager to perform a small project for a client. Partner A performs the work, closes the file and has no further contact with the client nor with the client’s decision makers. Later, after independent marketing efforts by Partner B to other decision makers in the organization, the client retains the firm to perform a major project. Partner A has had no role, or even knowledge, that the marketing effort has taken place. In fact, the client does not even know that Partner A had done a project previously. Partner A should not reasonably expect to be the billing partner on the new matter.
Obviously, no single rule will dictate the answer to this question in every instance. Rather, billing responsibility should be considered and determined on a case-by-case basis. If more than one attorney has assisted in the origination of the new client or client matter, or is actively involved in providing services to that client, the partners should determine among themselves who will have the responsibility of serving as billing partner for the client and matter. If the partners are unable to make this determination, after good-faith efforts to do so, the billing partner responsibility will be determined by the firm’s managing partner or management committee. In any event, all partners who significantly assisted in the origination of the new client or client matter should be listed as “originating partner” on the firm’s new client/new client matter intake form.
In making the determination regarding who should serve as billing partner, all of the partners who participated in originating the new client or matter (and if necessary, the managing partner/management committee) should consider the following factors:
Which partner has (or will have) primary responsibility for client management, overall supervision and administration of client services and is (or will be) the primary point of contact for the client? In short, who does (or will) the client look to for the overall care and maintenance of its interest within the firm?
Who was primarily responsible for the origination of the client or new client matter, and what level of assistance did they provide?
Has the client stated a preference for receiving consolidated billing for various matters and for receiving bills from a particular partner within the firm?
Which partner has the primary or strongest relationship with the client?
Which partner is in the best position to address and resolve any issues or problems that may arise with the client?
Which partner has traditionally served as the billing partner on most or all other matters for this particular client, and does that partner continue to have strong relationships and active involvement with the client and the client’s legal matters?
Guidelines for Transferring Billing Responsibilities
A more difficult and sensitive situation may arise when it is appropriate and/or necessary to transfer billing responsibility from one partner to another. These circumstances include, but are not limited to the following:
When the managing partner or management committee determines that the interests of the firm are best served by transferring billing partner responsibilities.
When the billing partner is engaged in a transition plan toward retirement.
When the appropriate roles and responsibilities expected to be performed by the billing partner are not being fulfilled by the current billing partner as to some or all matters for a client.
Who should serve as billing partner is not always a clear or “black or white” determination. It is hoped that the partners will keep the best interests of the firm and the spirit of teamwork and support of each other at the forefront in making these decisions. •