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 going to the extra efforts that we do, uncompensated time as it is, to every day enter detailed entries for the work we do, we experience few billing questions and virtually no billing disputes.
The way our time keeping and billing system works is like this: Every day every attorney and paralegal turns in a timesheet with entries for every client matter. Each entry 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 preparation and then research prescriptive easement issue and work on first draft of Summary Judgment Brief specifically relating thereto; thereafter conference with WBB regarding that section of the Brief and then make revisions thereto to incorporate his changes.”
Or here is another type of time entry relating to a telephone call:
- “WBB tcw Planning and Development Services case manager Jane Roe with respect to the issues raised at the pre-application conference, specifically the Traffic Impact Study (“TIS”), and road widening, the later being problematic because of utility lines through that area; discussed TIS scope of work and cost of utility relocations.”
Or maybe an entry will be something like this:
- “WBB meeting with client with respect to the site visit WBB recently made and the site constraints he witnessed; also regarding the possibility of both Form District and Zoning Changes and possible variances or waivers and the issues likely to be raised by neighbors, possible opponents and the Planning Commission, specifically re: road capacity, access, stream setbacks, wetlands protection, 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, Planning Commission public hearing, and local legislative body final vote; 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 charged, but also, over the course of the entire case, the client has the benefit of the attorneys’/paralegals’ diaries of the case history.
Different from our approach, other law firms and lawyers often keep one set of notes in the individual case files and another more abbreviated record on particular client billing sheets, with only the latter available to the client. Our view is that the client should have the benefit of the case file and billing notes.
Periodically as client cases proceed, we run what we call “prebills”, which are computer generated timesheets. The case responsible billing attorney carefully reviews and edits same, often eliminating time entries or marking time entries down to reflect facts such as there might be a learning curve involved in a case that should not be charged; sometimes reflecting data entry errors; and regularly editing time entries to make them easier to understand. Our view is that time entries on a client 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 sent until the very 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 events, for example after an appearance at a Planning Commission meeting or Circuit Court or Court of Appeals hearing. In such instances, precise monthly billings may be illogical or impractical. When closings are handled, we try to have invoices available at the time of closing so that they can be paid out of closing funds. 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, 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 thus billing and payment problems have not occurred. On occasions when a client is new or a project is especially risky, for example a client decides perhaps to proceed against unusually difficult circumstances, we may request a retainer in advance.