Every attorney probably has a different approach to billing. Our approach to billing is probably different than most clients have historically experienced. We have found that by taking the time that we do, uncompensated time as it is, to every day enter detailed time entries for the work we do, we experience few billing questions and virtually no billing disputes.
Every day every attorney and paralegal turns in a timesheet with time entries for every client matter that very specifically records what work he or she performed. For example, a time entry will not just say “review of file”, “internal office conference”, “telephone call with John Doe”, etc. Rather time entries should say something like:
- “NRP tcw client re: timing of Brief and then research prescriptive easement issue and prepare first draft of Summary of Judgment Brief specifically relating thereto; thereafter conference with WBB regarding that section of the Brief and then revisions thereto to incorporate changes made.”
Or here is another type of time entry relating to a telephone call:
- “WBB Telephone call with Planning and Development Services case manager Jane Roe with respect to the issues raised at the pre-application conference, specifically the Woodlands Protection Area (“WPA”), which is problematic because of utility extensions through that area; consequently, suggested that WPA language be modified to accommodate the utility lines.”
Or maybe an entry will be something like this:
- “WBB conference with client with respect to the site visit WBB recently made and the site constraints he witnessed; also regarding the possibility of a Form District Change and Zoning Change and the issues likely to be raised by neighbors and the Planning Commission, specifically re: road access, woodlands preservation, stream setbacks, wetlands issues, and style and design of buildings, including problems with the initially conceived site layout; also discussed fees and the entire zoning process giving specific dates for key milestone events, including dates for possible Land Development and Transportation Committee (LD&T) meeting and Planning Commission public hearing appearances; thereafter draft, revise and send letter to client explaining all of the things discussed in the meeting.”
With entries of this kind, the client not only knows specifically what was done for the time that was changed, but also, over the course of the entire case, the client has the benefit of the attorneys’/paralegals’ diaries of the case history.
As opposed to our approach, some attorneys keep one set of notes in the case file and another very abbreviated record on billing sheets available to the client. Our view is that the client should have the same benefit of those file notes.
Other attorneys keep no file notes and only provide abbreviated time entries, in part because time entries area time-consuming, agonizing process. After years of legal work, many attorneys understandably get run down by keeping detailed timesheets, so they give up on the practice.
We run what we call “prebills”, which are computer generated time sheets for every client and client matter, which, each billing attorney, carefully reviews (editing prebills is uncompensated time) and edits, often marking time entries down to reflect the fact that sometimes there is a difficulty or learning curve in a case that should not be charged; sometimes reflecting data entry errors; and sometimes editing time entries to make them easier to understand. Our view is that time entries on an invoice should read like a story from beginning to end so the case diary ends up making sense to the client.
After editing a prebill, it is finalized as an invoice and sent to the client. Payment is expected within 30 days from date of invoice.
Invoices are usually sent every 4-8 weeks. However, if a matter is something of short duration, an invoice might not be send until the end of the matter, which might be a shorter or longer period of time. When cases involve key events, invoices may be sent after such key events such as an appearance at a public hearing and so forth. When closings are handled, we try to have the bills available at the time of closing so that they can be paid out of closing. Sometimes we bill after, instead of at the closing if that works better for the client.
Because we are a small firm and place such a high emphasis on the importance of fair, consistent, thorough billing, we are flexible. We have full time staff devoted just to this effort. It has paid off for us and for clients over time.
As to expenses, we bill directly for expenses in addition to fees for legal services rendered. Expenses will include such things as filing fees (which we do not advance for a client but expect payment in advance), exhibit preparation, photocopying, photography (which we do in-house) and so forth.
Normally we do not expect to be paid a retainer up front because most of our clients are well-known locally or nationally within the industry of development interests that we represent or because we have ongoing relationships that have proven beneficial and billing and payment problems have not occurred. On occasions when a client is new or a project is especially risky and a client decides perhaps to proceed against unusually difficult circumstances, we may request a retainer in advance.