Alternative fee arrangements, such as fixed fee agreements, remain a hot topic for practice management, but accurate and effective time entry remains an important administrative component of legal practice.
Lesson 1: Know Your Client’s Billing Preferences
Some clients have billing requirements for their law firms, such as task-based entries, block bills, or specialized billing programs. In addition, some clients have what are better described as preferences rather than requirements. Each of us has a preference or tendency in time entry. Whether it is how individuals are referred to (full name, first initial, and last name, and so on) or whether abbreviations are used for terms like “regarding,” personal preferences should not trump a client’s preference for time entry descriptions. In-house counsel or others reviewing bills may prefer descriptions to be structured in a certain fashion. Others in your firm for whom you work (and who are responsible for billing) may have their own preferences for how time entries for a particular client should look. Administrative headaches can be avoided by asking about time entry preferences at the beginning of an assignment or relationship.
Lesson 2: Be Descriptive Yet Concise
Gone are the days when a client would accept an invoice for “services rendered.” Your time entry is your justification for payment. Each entry should accurately describe, in terms your client will understand and appreciate, the work performed. A two-hour entry for “research” does not help your client understand what services were provided for his benefit during that time. In many cases, simply adding a “regarding” description can go a long way toward accurately describing your work. But going to the opposite extreme of description can be just as frustrating to your client. Pages of time entry descriptions in an invoice will be glossed over by a client who simply wants to understand the basis for your invoice without having to digest the play-by-play of each of your days. Finding an appropriate balance between these potentially competing principles can be challenging.
Lesson 3: Review Your Entries
Proofreading is a necessary component of legal practice, but too many attorneys fail to adequately review their time entries before releasing them to clients or partners. Mr. Keating may be disinclined to pay for time you spent meeting with Mr. “Keeting” and may question the value of “resaerch re statue of limitations.” And a partner reviewing draft bills will not appreciate serving as your personal spell-checker. Typos in time entries may not actually be a reflection of the care and attention you give to a client’s matter, but they may cause your client or colleague to wonder what it says about your legal acumen.
Lesson 4: Keep Your Time as You Go
You should record your time as the day progresses. Trying to re-create the tasks accomplished over the course of a full workday at the end of that day will lead at best to lost time and at worst to gross inaccuracies in descriptions. It takes far longer to sift through notes, e-mails, and phone logs to reconstruct a day’s work than to simply take a few seconds to note the time as tasks are started and completed (or interrupted). Your firm may impose consequences for failure to timely enter your time or offer incentives for timely recording. Finally, recording your work contemporaneously with its performance will help you to more easily accomplish the goal of descriptive yet concise entries.
Lesson 5: Remember Your Potential Audience
We have all had occasion to review an e-mail or letter written by a client and wonder, “Why on earth would she have put that in writing!?” But too infrequently do attorneys consider the generally nonprivileged nature of invoices for legal services. Consider with each entry that someone other than your client may be reading your legal invoices. Any potentially sensitive work performed should be memorialized in your time entries with this simple thought in mind—what if someone in a dispute with my client (or me) were to read this description?
Time entry is a necessary part of every attorney’s practice. Effective, careful time entry reinforces to clients and colleagues the attorney’s dedication to his or her work.