Lawyers often complain about the business side of running a law practice, particularly when it comes to issuing invoices and collecting fees. Some attorneys find conversations with clients about fees to be uncomfortable, and prefer to ignore the issue altogether. However, auditing one’s billing practices and developing a routine can help boost an attorney’s financial viability, support an attorney’s ethical and professional duties, and avoid unnecessary or uncomfortable conversations with a client down the road.
Regular billing not only helps a practice run, but may be required by the rules of ethics. Indeed, Rule 1.03 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct describes a lawyer’s duty to communicate with her client. It provides that “[a] lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.” Generating and sending accurate and honest billing statements on a regular basis can be a part of complying with Rule 1.03.
When auditing one’s own billing practices, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Send Bills Regularly
It can be an awkward part of practicing law to have to defend or explain an invoice to a client. However, those conversations can become more heated or even adversarial if the client is taken wholly surprise by an invoice. By issuing bills at regular intervals, an attorney may reduce the possibility that the client is surprised by the amount of or justification for the bill.
Even in a representation where the client and attorney speak regularly, or where the client reviews and approves of strategy, the client may be unhappy to receive only a single bill at the conclusion of the representation. Although the attorney might assume that the client understood and appreciated the requirements of the representation given a hands-on demeanor, such a course could result in severe sticker shock. It could even create a question regarding whether the work performed was really necessary (particularly if the matter has meandered onto a different path or where the final result was less than ideal).
Less severe, although quite common, are representations during which the attorney sends out billing invoices erratically over long periods of time. From the client’s perspective, this irregularity creates a sense of unpredictability, which can cause the client to view the attorney as sloppy or disorganized overall. A client may suspect that a lawyer who is irregular in billing may not be paying sufficient attention to the details of the representation. Whether invoices are issued monthly or quarterly or at some other interval, a regular system may aid the attorney-client relationship.
Sending bills frequently and regularly is often beneficial to both lawyer and client. The most obvious benefit to the lawyer and law practice is financial because they are more likely to be paid on time.
Record Time Regularly
Some attorneys fall into the bad habit of trying to re-create their time entries weeks or even months after the fact. They may assume that when they are busy with billable matters, administrative matters like time entry can wait. However, trying to recreate accurate time entries long after the billable tasks were completed can be an arduous process.
In addition, trying to recreate time entries can result in inaccurate bills. At one end, an attorney trying to remember what she spent her time on weeks ago may overlook small but important tasks and fail to bill for them, resulting in under-billing. Or worse, an attorney may err the other direction and over-estimate how much time she spent on a project.
While traditionalists often prefer paper timekeeping logs, some attorneys and law firms are turning to matter-management software to record and track billable time. These electronic resources include built-in timers, which help attorneys document their time to the tenth of the hour, the ability to store and auto-populate frequently used descriptors, tasks, matters, and clients, and readily available information regarding billing data, trends, and invoices. Such services may be of great use to procrastinating timekeepers.
Many law practices require their attorneys to enter their time on a regular basis, be it weekly, monthly, or even daily. Some law firms even penalize attorneys financially for failure to comply with the internally-set deadline.
Describe Time Effectively
Bills are one method of communicating with clients about the work being performed on a matter. In some situations, a client may not fully appreciate the important work that its lawyer is doing, even where the client has discussed or approved of a strategy in advance. Vague billing entries add little clarity to the scope of work performed. Instead, they can lead to misunderstandings or significant problems that compound over time. As a result, if billing entries are not sufficiently descriptive or helpful, clients may question whether the sum of legal fees is worth the services that were rendered—and for good reason.
By contrast, detailed billing entries serve beneficial purposes for both client and lawyer. Not only do they convey in clear terms all of the work that was performed, but they can reflect client consent for a host of tasks, remind the client of a particular course of action, minimize or help resolve billing disputes should they arise, and serve as a defense to a malpractice claim. Indeed, they often serve as records of how a matter unfolded and can be of great assistance if there is later a dispute over what the representation entailed.
Shari L. Klevens is a partner at Dentons and serves on the firm’s US Board of Directors. She represents and advises lawyers and insurers on complex claims and is co-chair of Dentons’ global insurance sector team. Alanna Clair is a partner at Dentons and focuses on professional liability defense. Shari and Alanna are co-authors of “The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance.”