It’s no secret that there are a lot of things you don’t learn about running a law practice in law school. But, I’ve discovered that there is also a lot about running a small practice you won’t learn working at another attorney’s firm either. For example, when I worked in Big Law I learned how my firm wanted me to bill (i.e. as much as possible). But it wasn’t until I entered solo practice that I learned how my clients wanted me to bill.
By implementing good billing practices you can turn what is (at least for the client) a negative experience (i.e. receiving a bill) into an opportunity to build positive feelings about the work you’re performing for them. After all, it’s often poor communication that leads to billing conflict with clients. Here are 5 simple tips you can adopt to improve the billing experience with your clients:
1. Be specific
Always avoid using generic descriptors for your work. For example, never include an entry that simply reads “Reviewed case file” in an invoice. Instead, think about what parts of the case file you’re reviewing and what you’re hoping to accomplish by performing the review. Incorporate that information into your billing entry. A better entry might read, “Analyze pleadings and discovery in order to evaluate factual and legal support for a motion for summary judgment.”
Similarly, if you have a call with an expert or outside counsel, incorporate the content of the conversation into the billing entry. For example, write “Confer with Plaintiff’s Attorney John Smith regarding the insufficiency of Plaintiff’s discovery responses and potential for early settlement,” instead of simply writing, “Phone call to opposing counsel.”
Generally speaking, you’re better off providing more information instead of less. If you’re too generic, it may look like your hiding something or even padding your bills.
2. Use dynamic words that demonstrate your intellectual labor
Much of the work an attorney performs for a client doesn’t directly result in a tangible product for a client. In fact, it’s fair to say that most of the work we perform primarily involves use of our experience, creativity, and intellect. As a result, it’s not always obvious how you used your experience and skill as an attorney in the work you performed for them.
Thus, it’s important to make sure that your billing entries adequately demonstrate the application of your skill and intellectual labor. For example, a client might wonder why they are being asked to pay a hefty fee for an attorney to merely “review” some documents. Instead, you should use words such as “evaluate,” “analyze” and “assess” because they are more dynamic and better reflect the application of your professional skills to the work you’re performing.
3. Show progress
Your invoices, when reviewed as a whole, should be able to summarize how a case progressed over time. If they are accomplishing that goal then your client will be able to see the evolution of their case every time they receive a bill. Think of your invoice as a summary of your progress on a matter during the relevant invoice period. If the invoice doesn’t demonstrate any movement on a case, it’s more likely to lead your client to feel frustration and dissatisfaction.
4. Show the work you aren’t charging them for
There are many tasks that you probably don’t charge your client for such as administrative tasks, travel, and inter-office meetings. Nonetheless, even if you don’t charge a client for these tasks, it’s a good idea to include these entries on your billing invoice — so long as it remains clear that you are not charging them for that work. Including these sorts of entries demonstrates the whole scope of the work you’re performing on the client’s behalf. It also signals to them that you are performing some work on their behalf free of charge, and, in my experience, clients particularly appreciate the work that you don’t charge them for.
5. Submit invoices in a timely manner
Bill for your work in a timely fashion. Ideally, the work you performed will be fresh in both your mind and theirs when you submit an invoice. This way you’ll be in a better position to answer any questions they have about that work. Similarly, they are more likely to remember conversations you had with them that touched on or addressed the work in question.
What other ingredients go into a good invoice? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section.