Whether you’re employed at a large or small firm, one thing is for certain: tracking and billing time is an important and inevitable part of working at a law firm. For many associates, your value at your law firm, at least partially, is directly related to the number of hours you bill per month. And, if you are a solo practitioner, although you may not necessarily have “billing requirements,” billing is still a necessary part of your practice.
Although billing may be one of the most important aspects in the legal profession, it is also likely one of the most dreaded tasks in a young associate’s legal career. Efficient billing is an art — an art that once mastered can guide your way to success at your law firm. Ironically enough, although billing may be one of the most important tasks to master during your first few years of practice, billing is one topic that is hardly, if at all, discussed in law schools.
It is no secret that legal fees have increased over the years. As a result, clients have become more cost-conscious and closely examine their legal bills. Here are several tips to help you meet your law firm’s billable hour requirement while also ensuring that your billing is fair and reasonable for clients:
In a typical day, you may plan to draft a brief, write a memorandum for a partner’s review, and attend a client meeting.
You walk in to your office and begin your brief. Three lines in, you realize you need to grab a coffee. You’re back at your desk working on your brief and your colleague stops by your office to say “good morning” and ask about your weekend. You finish your conversation, you’re back to typing your brief, and you receive an email alert. Your client emailed you with multiple complex questions. You put your brief aside and you start answering his email. As you type, you receive several additional emails, to which you also immediately respond. You look at the clock and it’s 11 a.m. You think to yourself, “Wait, how did this happen? I wanted to be completed with this brief by lunchtime and I’ve only worked on it for one hour and written three paragraphs!”
Days like this may be all too common. Reducing your distractions in your workplace is essential to effective billing; however, reducing distractions is easier said than done, and eliminating distractions completely is nearly impossible.
One simple way to ensure you able to complete assignments you planned is to block off a certain amount of time to complete your tasks. By way of example, if the aforementioned brief is likely to take you three hours to complete, block off three hours on your calendar and indicate that is the time you will be writing your brief. Then, spend those three hours writing the brief without distraction, as if you were in a client meeting or otherwise predisposed. This will ensure that you set aside the necessary time to stay focused on the specific assignment.
Another way to reduce distractions is to turn off the volume on your computer to avoid email alerts. If you are in the habit of checking your email as soon as you receive an email alert, it will be nearly impossible to complete the necessary tasks that you have pre-planned to complete during your workday.
Another effective technique to incorporate throughout your workday is to set aside a specific amount of time in the morning and afternoon to check your emails. For example, you may decide to check emails at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and before you leave for the day, instead of checking each email as it comes in. That way, your day is not being entirely interrupted by emails, and rather, you can focus instead on utilizing larger amounts of time to complete tasks and effectively bill your services.
Capture Your Billable Work as You Go
Capturing your time as you go is perhaps the most important tool in effective billing. Whatever method you use to capture your time (i.e. paper, Excel, or a certain online software), stick to it and ensure that you are keeping track of your work all day every day.
If you do not write/type/electronically input your time after you have completed each assignment, it is incredibly likely that you will forget to include certain assignments. Such action will only result in additional work to ensure you’re meeting your billable hour requirement.
Most law firms today have billing software that makes it easier for associates to ensure accuracy and effectiveness in their billing. In typical billing programs there is a timer, which allows you to accurately keep track of the time it has taken you to complete an assignment. Once that assignment is completed, it is best practice to immediately submit your billing entry. This not only ensures that your billing is accurate, but it also ensures you are as effective as possible in capturing each billable event.
Do Not Engage in Block Billing
Block billing is the practice of “assigning one time charge to multiple tasks.” For example, one who engages in block billing may bill 7.5 hours and list a wide variety of tasks in the billing description.
If you engage in block billing, you make it extremely difficult for the senior attorney/partner to accurately review your billing to determine how long each assignment actually took you to perform. As a result, your senior supervisor is much more likely to cut your time and/or re-word your billing to ensure your billing entries pass muster with your client. When your billing entries raise suspicion or question to your superior, your time entered will likely be cut; if you had imputed your time differently, by breaking up each task, you may have received credit for most, if not all of your work completed.
Further, by design, block billing makes it nearly impossible for clients to determine if they are being billed fairly. Block billing raises suspicion with clients, as it may appear that lawyers are trying to disguise inefficiencies.
Most importantly, block billing is against the California Ethical Rules. As a percentage penalty for block billing, most courts make a reduction ranging from 5% - 30%. Ultimately, if the amount charged is questioned, the lawyer has the burden to provide additional support, which may include testimony and documentary evidence.
Don’t Under-Report Your Own Time
As a young lawyer, you will often be tempted to cut your own time. You may think that the amount of time it took you to complete an assignment is unreasonable given that it may have taken your supervisor much less time — and you’d be correcting in your thinking! However, most senior lawyers who review your billing will recognize this and will modify the billing to reflect this. Let the senior attorney responsible for the client’s fees determine if the amount is reasonable in light of the services rendered.
Delegate Work You Cannot Bill
The practice of law inevitably involves administrative tasks. Most clients should not and will not pay for such tasks. As a result, work completed that you cannot bill a client for services, should be delegated to support staff. The delegation of certain tasks for which you cannot ethically bill will provide you with additional time to ensure billable work is completed and captured.
It is no secret that billing is a stressful part of your everyday life as a young associate. Hopefully, by keeping the abovementioned tips in mind, you will be able to effectively conquer your billing requirements while also ensuring you are not spending unnecessary hours at the office just to keep up.