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July 11, 2011 Articles

Prove the Value of Your Work for Your Clients and Partners

Billing may not be a pleasant task, but if you can take the time to detail the specific nature of the work you've performed, you will make the life of your partner easier, demonstrate your value to the client, and—in turn—get more work.

By David Cannella

Let’s face it: Racketeering claims have a certain appeal for victims of commercial fraud. Such claims offer expanded remedies, including treble damages and attorney fees; an expanded scope that allows plaintiffs to expose professionals’ involvement in fraudulent schemes; and statutes of limitations that often exceed those governing the underlying tort claims. Although most state racketeering laws were modeled on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, some states’ laws deviate from, and are more specific than, the federal law. The differences in these statutes can often mean the survival of a plaintiff’s claim under the state racketeering law instead of its demise under the federal law.

In the olden days, lawyers billed their clients by the word. This practice explains why most form releases contain 250 words to state “I release all claims I had or could have had until today in exchange for the settlement payment.”

Today most lawyers have “advanced” to the point where we bill their time in tenths of an hour. Although there is a progressive movement towards alternate billing arrangements, our clients need to know why and how they are getting value for the work that we perform regardless of the terms of the engagement.

Unfortunately, recording time and providing meaningful descriptions of how that time advances the client’s interest is not taught in law school. As a partner, I find reviewing the time entries of my associates to be as pleasant as a root canal, but without the benefits of pain killers. The problem is not that associates spend too much time on a task (although sometimes they do), but rather that they don’t provide a sufficient description of what they are doing so that I can make an educated decision as to whether the client is receiving value for the work performed.

No lawyer should ever enter a time entry for “research”, or “conference with my boss.” Instead, each lawyer who bills time for a client matter needs to tell the client through the bill what you have done to advance the ball. For example, if your partner gives you an assignment to research and draft a motion to dismiss a breach of contract claim for lack of personal jurisdiction, you should never bill your time in a block such as “research assignment re: personal jurisdiction-5 hours.”

Ask yourself, if you were the client, would you pay a bill that generally described research for 5.0 hours? You should take the time to instruct your partner and your client of the specific nature of the work you performed. For example, those five hours you spent should be broken down into the individual tasks that you performed to complete the assignment. For example, “Research 5.0” could be broken down as follows: “analysis of Plaintiff’s complaint in preparation for dismissal motion”; followed by “analysis of contract documents and correspondence for factual support for motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction due to lack of minimum contacts with the forum state”; “analysis of Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia. S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414-16 (1984) and Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 476 (1985) and their progeny for support for defense personal jurisdiction arguments.”

Sure, it requires more work on the part of the billing attorney. But it’s the least your clients expect and will make your partner’s job easier. This, in turn, will result in you getting more work.

Furthermore, more clients are requiring their outside counsel to set a task oriented budget at the start of a case. If you are going to be substantively involved in a case, you should ask the partner who has the client relationship whether there is a case budget and you should ask to see the budget so that you can get a sense of your partner’s expectations and the client’s expectations.

Your description of your work is a valuable tool for your partners and your clients.  Describe your work in a meaningful way.  Your partners will thank you for it.

David Cannella

Copyright © 2011, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).