Legal professionals — lawyers, paralegals, forensics experts, investigators, researchers and librarians, for example — sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to billing clients for their work. Especially when the time tracked is not attributable to creating traditional work products, such as briefs and trial memos. Add to that the growing trend for alternative fee arrangements, which often calls for flat rates for specific services, with the goal of decreasing legal bills. It’s no secret that clients are often confused and angry when bills arrive.

Enter No Surprises Software, and its cloud-based product, Viewabill, which the company says is designed to bring transparency to legal billing. It’s the creation of two entrepreneurs. David Schottenstein also launched Swiss Stays, in 2011 (it manufactures collar stays) and??founded Astor & Black, a custom clothing company, in 2004, at age 21. Robbie Friedman began his career at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and then served as general counsel at Astor & Black, managing corporate and private equity matters and external attorneys, according to the Viewabill website. The two men share the CEO title at No Surprises Software, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.

According to Schottenstein, he and Friedman were childhood friends. Schottenstein went into business at Astor & Black, where he was shocked to see some of the legal bills the clothier received for outside counsel’s contract review. After attending the University of Michigan Law School, Friedman started his career on the other side of the law firm billing process, at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Both Schottenstein and Friedman agreed that law firm billing practices detracted from the attorney-client relationship and decided to team up and work to make billing more transparent and understandable. Together they formed No Surprises Software and then solicited iconic lawyer and law professor Alan Dershowitz to help promote Viewabill. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard University, is well known for his high-profile clients (e.g., Mike Tyson, Patty Hearst) and outspoken liberal positions — but not famous for his technology prowess. He is, however, an established advocate of "accountability and transparency."

The trio launched Viewabill on March 11, to provide law firm clients — including corporate legal departments — current views of their legal costs, all calculated from specific time entries for particular matters entered into a firm’s time and billing system. Its goal is to increase transparency in the lawyer-client relationship by surfacing and reporting on how client money is being spent and alerting clients to specific expenditures that reach a measured threshold, they explained.

No Surprises obtains data on matters, time-keepers, time entries and billing rates from law firm time and billing systems and presents the data on secure web pages for clients to access via desktop or mobile web browser. If the firm’s billing system is web-based, Viewabill uses its application programming interface to obtain data, albeit the amount and type of data available to No Surprises is limited to the third-party’s API. If the firm’s time and billing system is installed on premise, No Surprises installs a transmitter that makes read-only requests to an SQL database for data. The resultes are transmitted to Viewabill’s web service via HTTPS (256-bit encryption).

Viewabill’s client dashboard displays legal costs for all service engagements and matters in a bar chart that displays activity for 7, 30 or 90 days. Bars represent daily activity in hours entered in the firm’s time and billing system. You can select the time of the display from the top of the page.

The dashboard view calculates costs using total hours from "blocked" and published rates. The blocked rates indicates the number of billable hours the firm has entered without disclosing the billing rate to the client. The total cost (hours x rates) is displayed as the calculated cost, plus any balance due from an unpaid invoice. The chart context changes to a specific engagement and matter, which is selected from the lower left-hand side of the dashboard, which lists matters alphabetically by law firm.

When I drilled down into a law firm’s matters from the dashboard, I saw each matter the firm is working on along with the number of time entries and total hours for all entries. Alongside each matter is a button labeled "Pencils Down." When I clicked on that, a dialog box opens to prompt me to send a message to inform the law firm to stop working on the matter.

Drilling down one more time lays bare specific time entries with data on the time-keeper, cost, time entered, task descriptor, and any notes. Each individual time entry has an "i" button that displays when the time entry was made and a question mark to send the provider a question on the item.

I sent a provider a "Pencils Down" message from the dashboard, which triggered an email to the firm, asking it to stop billing for the task until further notice. The billing partner received an HTML email to reply and confirm the request. The message is returned to the dashboard via HTTPS and posted for the client to review.

When I reviewed my sent message copied to the dashboard’s "Conference Room," the message informed me when I made the Pencils Down request and when I received the response. Both log entries indicated the minutes that had elapsed since I made the request and since I received an answer from the current time. I would rather see the date and time stamp surfaced in this view.

Rather than keep a periodic watch on the dashboard, I set up alerts or notifications by matter and chose a threshold amount of time or dollars for the firm to expend. When the firm reaches the threshold I set, Viewabill notifies me via email or pushes the alert to the dashboard. Then I selected a distribution schedule for all my alerts: none (disable), daily, or weekly. I would prefer to set a distribution time for each alert, rather than apply one distribution time for all notifications. Some matters may be more critical than others.

The Viewabill toolbar menu at the top of each page provides quick access to your dashboard and individual matters, messages, and a request form to contact your service provider, aka law firm, and request information for other matters. The law firm has its own interface to Viewabill to set up client access, configure matters, and set permissions to open or restrict views to time and billing data. A search feature (magnifying glass icon) is also on the menu bar.

The search form is well thought out and designed to search, or filter, time and billing data. Search filters include law firm, matter, keywords and dates. The date filter is prominently displayed. Click the beginning date on the left calendar form and the end date on the right, pull down a menu to filter on a matter and type in keywords.

A search for "Robert Friedman" returned all the time entries for a specified period entered by Friedman. The top of the search result form tallied all the time entries (5), totaled Friedman’s billable hours (20.4), and then calculated the total cost ($3,567.00).

Legal business software such as Thomson Reuters’ Serengeti and Hartford, Conn.-based Tymetrix 360 supply law firm analytics designed to give firms a competitive edge in proposals for work product. For corporate legal departments, Houston, Texas-based Datacert’s Legal Spend Management, Andover, Mass.-based Sky Analytics, and Tymetrix’s Legal Analytics are designed to help corporate counsel manage and reduce costs from outside counsel. But the current legal spend managers do not integrate directly with outside counsel’s time and billing applications to retrieve, analyze and report current time entries.

I am not aware of any product that directly competes with Viewabill, albeit it is possible for a law firm to use its own technology to surface and analyze billable time entries and create portals for client review. But in following today’s trend for firms to get back to their core competency of practicing law, they may be hard pressed to compete with Viewabill’s features and price.

Viewabill starts at $40 per matter per year, which can drop to $25 per matter per year with bulk discounts, said Schottenstein. Unlimited matters per year cost $35,000. Time and billing data are saved for 120 days, but a longer or shorter time period can be negotiated, added Schottenstein. •