Using your time sheets and bills to communicate with clients

Have you ever received a legal bill?  It’s an interesting moment; all too often there’s a sharp intake of breath (it costs that much?), quickly followed by an investigation into why it costs so much.  What do you want your clients to find when they read your bills?

What you don’t want is pretty clear.
*  You don’t want them to wonder how much time your/your firm spent on a matter.
*  You don’t want them to wonder who did the work.
*  You don’t want them to wonder what each member of the team did on their case.
In other words, “For services rendered” will not be a phrase that pleases clients.

It’s standard to require attorneys and paralegals to keep time sheets that describe in detail what they’ve done.  The issue, though, is how well that standard is honored.  As you’re filling out your daily time sheet (because you do keep your time on a daily basis, right?  if not, visit Time sheet habits: don’t procrastinate  and New lawyer skills focus: Are you losing time? to find out why you should) consider the information value of your billing.

Block billing is easy to do, but very difficult for clients to interpret.  An entry like, “2.5 hours, reviewed documents and drafted/revised motion to compel ” will leave a client wondering how long each task required, and the client may not be pleased to find an entry the next day for more time on the motion to compel because she may expect that the 2.5 hours covered drafting the motion when in fact you only reviewed documents and drafted the motion but not the memorandum in support.  Block billing creates questions.  Instead, consider whether you want to indicate more precisely the amount of time you spent on each task, or whether it would be preferable to include multiple entries.

Although it’s essential to remember that your bills may be discoverable and that they must not include privileged information, consider how you may communicate the scope of your work without crossing the line.  So, for instance, you might include entries like, “Researched law re admissibility of [opposing party’s] statement in [brief] that [whatever].”

Errors happen, but do everything in your power to ensure that you bill the correct client for the work you’ve done.  Finding an entry that doesn’t pertain to your matter is a disheartening experience for the client, who may wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

In-house counsel often complains about reviewing attorney bills because they’re cryptic, not explicit, and sometimes just plain wrong. Draft your time sheets so that your clients know who did what, why, and when.

And a note: in case a new associate is reading this and thinking it’s inapplicable because you don’t get to review the bills that clients receive, remember that what goes into your time sheet is what goes into the bills.  Don’t allow yourself to slip into bad billing practices; that’s not a favor to the partners who review your time sheets or to your clients, and both will hold it against you.

1 reply
  1. Ed Poll
    Ed Poll says:

    More lawyers should recognize the incredible marketing power within the reach of their own billing. Not only is this the only way to get paid (no one will pay you without a bill), but it also is a way to romance your client by what and how you tell the client about your work for that client the previous month. Thanks for mentioning our article and our blog.

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