Many lawyers I know (okay, most lawyers I know) consider recording and billing their time to be the least favorite part of their job. Don’t let this be you! Developing good billing practices so they become second nature can actually help you out as you progress in your career, instead of billing being a constant thorn in your side.
Here are my top five billing tips:
Record your time promptly. This may seem like a no-brainer, but recording your time promptly might just be the single most important billing practice for a young lawyer. Billing promptly helps you to bill accurately. I like to bill as I go, using the time-tracking software that we have at my firm, but some people find that billing at the end of each day works best for them. The longer you wait to do your time entries, the less accurate you’ll be and (according to the research) the more likely you are to capture less time than you actually spent. Recording more time than you spent is of course also a no-no (for obvious reasons). Accurately reconstructing a week’s or a month’s worth of phone calls, emails, conversations, and other tasks is difficult, not to mention an unpleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Provide detailed time entries. Detailed time entries are useful for the client who receives your bill, and can help avoid awkward situations where you need to try and recall exactly what you were working on for 5.2 hours on a given day a month and a half ago. It is important not just to record the “what” of your billable work, but also the “who”, “how,” “why,” and “where” (as applicable). A docket entry that says “Review and analyze settlement offer from Plaintiff and consider applicable case law,” is better than an entry that simply says “Document review” or “Review letter from opposing counsel.” If you have a phone call or a meeting, make sure to record who it was with and a brief description of what it was about.
Avoid block billing. This will help ensure your bills are clear and understandable. A “block” billing entry makes it hard to tell how much time was spent on a particular task. For example, an entry that says you spent 7.5 hours: “Preparing written argument; responding to letter from opposing counsel; conducting follow-up case law research; exchanging emails with expert,” doesn’t give the client a good idea about how much time was dedicated to each task, and can make some clients suspicious that lawyers are trying to disguise inefficiencies.
Be familiar with the client’s billing practices. Does the client have a particular system or set of task codes? Does the client have particular billing policies? If so, follow them. For example, it won’t fly with some clients for two lawyers to each bill for a conversation they had with each other about the file.
Resist the urge to under-report your own time. As a junior lawyer, you will sometimes be aghast at how long it took you to complete a project or task. In the early days, try to resist the urge to cut your own time when doing your time entries. Remember that most senior lawyers recognize that a new lawyer won’t be as quick or efficient as a more senior lawyer; however, they chose to delegate the work to you for a reason. Let the lawyer who is responsible for the client assess whether the time and fees are reasonable in light of the work product the client is ultimately receiving.
Katherine A. Reilly is a partner with McMillan LLP in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.