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May 09, 2012 Articles

How to Write a Good Invoice

Learn the rules for each client. Once you know the rules, they are often very simple to follow.

By Teresa Beck, Esq.

Billing clients for our work is one of the most important tasks for lawyers. Our bills say a lot about us, both as individuals and as members of firms, and it is critical for lawyers to master the art and skill of billing to succeed at the highest levels of the profession. Although it is impossible to predict what will pass muster in every billing situation, below are some general principles to guide you.

Above All, Be Honest and Ethical It is imperative that our bills are honest reflections of valuable and necessary work performed for our clients. Our clients have developed complex billing review programs because, among other reasons, there is a sense of distrust. We can overcome these concerns by carefully billing for our work, ensuring we are doing only work that is required and that has value to our client.

Pretend You Are the Client Reviewing the Bill One of the best ways to become great at the art of billing is to review your billing entries from the client’s perspective. If you were the client, would you want to pay for the work being described or for the amount of time billed? If not, make revisions. If you wouldn’t want to pay for the work or wouldn’t appreciate the time spent to complete it, then they won’t either. Your goal should be for your client to review your bill and say, “I am so glad my lawyer did that work and I appreciate that she took this amount of time to do the work well.” I promise: This is an achievable goal.

The Bill Should Tell a Story of Why Payment is Justified One way to look at the bill is to think of it as a story about the case or legal matter. And it really is! Reading a bill from the inception of a matter to the end of a matter should tell a story about every event that occurred in the case, from the time the lawyer first reviewed the complaint or the client’s concern, to the time the matter is finally resolved. Every motion and discovery matter, and every phone call and meeting in between, should be part of that story. If the bill is not communicating the story of the case in a way that justifies the work, then the client is going to wonder why the bill should be paid.

For example, most clients will question a bill for trial preparation shortly after the complaint is filed. Such a bill would not be telling a story that makes sense. Similarly, a billing entry for “Telephone conference with Roger Jones” does not describe how Roger Jones relates to the story. A better description might be “Telephone conference with Roger Jones, the plaintiff’s direct supervisor and witness to numerous critical events relating to the plaintiff’s employment.” This entry fully describes the legal work you performed and explains why the work was justified.

Every Biller is Part of the Story Every person billing on a case or matter should make sure that his or her role fits into the overall story of the case. For example, if an associate bills for preparing discovery on the eve of trial but the partner has already told the client that discovery was completed a month before, the client is going to wonder what is going on. Similarly, if a client who is interested in pursuing settlement does not see any reference to settlement efforts in the bill, the client is going to wonder why her lawyers do not seem to understand the litigation strategy. Finally, a client may cringe to see Tom Brown, the paralegal, doing the same work as Jennifer Black, the associate. The bill should tell a story that clearly and concisely reflects tasks that the client expects to be performed, with everyone playing the right role to accomplish those tasks.

Communication is Key To ensure that your bill is telling a story your client wants to hear, it is critical that you discuss your client’s expectations at the beginning of the case or assignment, including the anticipated fees and costs. Many clients have developed litigation plans and budget forms for this very purpose. Make a thoughtful and honest assessment of the tasks you think will be necessary to get the job done and estimate how long it should take the appropriate legal personnel to accomplish those tasks. If you don’t have much experience with budgeting, ask those with more experience for their estimations. After you prepare the budget, keep track of what you estimated and let the client know when there are deviations––which, invariably, there will be because no one has yet fully mastered the art of predicting the future!

Most clients are forgiving when our forecasts change, as long as we keep them in the loop. Problems arise when we forget to keep track of what we forecasted, and when we neglect to tell the client of the need to make adjustments. If you can master the discipline of monitoring the initial plan and updating the client as the matter progresses, you can avoid many of these problems. If you don’t communicate these issues before the client gets the bill, you will invariably end up having the discussion after your client gets the bill and does not want to pay. It is far better to have the conversation in advance—and clients appreciate it.

Know the Rules Before You Get Started Many clients have guidelines they want followed for their legal work. Before getting started on any new matter, it is a good idea to ask your clients for their guidelines. Client A may want paralegals to perform certain tasks, and Client B may require you to use a certain copy service or attorney service. Client C may want you to get authority before you do legal research and to identify in the bill who provided the authority to do the research. Your clients expect you to know their guidelines, and they have every right to expect that you will do so. It is amazing how many lawyers and law firms do not follow the guidelines of their clients out of simple carelessness. Trust me, if you don’t want to follow the guidelines there are other lawyers and law firms out there who will be happy to do so. Make sure you do the easy things right. This is one of them.

Know the Words Clients Hate Many clients are driven crazy by certain buzz words that appear in bills. For some, it’s the word “review” because it sounds like the lawyer is casually reviewing the file over lunch and mindlessly billing for something that has no value. Some clients hate entries for 0.1 (or 1/10 of an hour) because they feel this level of billing is just nickeling and diming them. Others love entries of 0.1 because they feel the lawyer is being accurate about the time it took to do a task. The truth is, we cannot make everyone happy all of the time but individual clients, including large businesses, have pet peeves when it comes to billing. Try to discover your client’s pet peeves early on so you can avoid them. Once you know the words they hate, don’t use them!

Look at Previous Bills for Good Tips One of the best pieces of billing advice I ever received was to ask my billing department to give me some old bills that the client had paid without dispute. By reviewing the terms used by the lawyers on those files, I quickly picked up great ideas about not only how to bill for that particular client, but also some great ideas about general successful billing techniques to use in other cases and for other clients. Similarly, you canreview disputed bills, which often come with explanations to obtain some great insight about what not to do. Reviewing what has worked in the past, and what has not worked, can be very helpful.

Address Billing Disputes as Soon as You Know Once a client voices a concern about the bill, address it immediately or tell the responsible partner about such discussions so he or she can address the matter. These issues never get easier to resolve over time. Billing concerns can fester and grow if not addressed. Sometimes resolution is easy––perhaps an entry was posted to the wrong file, or maybe a 6.0 was supposed to be a 0.6—but sometimes the issues are bigger, like miscommunication about strategy. No matter the size of the dispute, billing issues are always easier to resolve early. Once you know of a client’s concern, be sure not to make the same mistake again. Either way, handle those issues as early as possible.

Happy Billing “Happy billing” might seem like an oxymoron but keep in mind, it is our livelihood. For new lawyers, it can be mind-boggling to think you have to account for every 0.1 increment of your day. More experienced lawyers can do it in their sleep. Learn the rules for each client. Once you know the rules, they are often very simple to follow.

If you follow these rules and draft your legal bills both accurately and descriptively into stories that your clients both expect and accept, you will have finally mastered the art of billing.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, invoices, clients, billing