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For most attorneys in private practice, billable hours is what we have to show for our efforts. Most of us are saddled with either billable hour "requirements," "expectations," or "aspirations." The bottom line is that our employer expects us to be a profit center in addition to being an effective lawyer. With that in mind, let's go over some tips for effective billing, keeping in mind that some firms or clients have certain guidelines that may render some of these tips moot.
1) Enter your time the moment you complete a task. The first bad habit many young attorneys acquire is to procrastinate about entering their time. The inevitable result is lost time due to forgotten minor tasks such as responding to e-mails or reviewing a pleading. Some people resort to jotting tasks down on a sheet of paper rather than filling out their time sheets or, as I presume most firms do these days, entering your time on a computer program. Others take the even riskier approach of keeping it in their head. Aside from losing time, those that keep it in their head are bound to keep inaccurate time, a deadly sin for attorneys. Just get into the habit of having your time sheet or time program open throughour your day. If you are away from your office, e-mail yourself time entries the moment they occur.
2) Know your client's billing guidelines. Legal work is expensive. Seriously, did you ever think your work would be worth $175-$200/hr.? The trade-off for this pricy work must be impeccable service. Impeccable service means knowing your client's preferences. Most clients offer "billing guidelines" to the firms they hire. These guidelines typically include whether the client requires entries to have "codes" added to them, whether the client will pay for travel time, or types of administrative tasks that the client will not pay for. Disobeying guidelines has several harmful effects - a) it raises the level of scrutiny on all future bills; b) it slows down the system as bills get returned to your office with red ink instead of a payment; and c) it sends a poor message that you're not listening to your client.
3) Be descriptive in your time entries. Entering good time is an artform. It's all a matter of being descriptive while not being too wordy. For example, let's assume you just researched an issue relating to when the Plaintiff's cause of action accrued for statutes of limitations purposes. Here are two wrong ways to bill it and the right way:
a) "Legal research on statute of limitations issue (0.8)"
b) "Research issue of when Plaintiff's cause of action accrued to determine if we can move to dismiss Count III of Plaintiff's Fourth Amended Complaint based on its failure to comply with the statute of limitations (0.8)"
c) "Legal research on accrual of Plaintiff's conversion claim for statute of limitations purposes (0.8)"
Option c) is the best of these by far. Option a) makes it seem like it took you nearly an hour to figure out what the statute of limitations on a claim is, a fact you should either know or can locate within 5 minutes. Option b) is ridiculously wordy. Option c) conveys what you were doing and why in under 15 words.
4) Use some common sense. This is really an add-on to being descriptive. After a year or so in practice, we come to learn that certain tasks typically take a certain amount of time. For instance, preparing an Answer and Affirmative Defenses may typically take an hour to an hour and a half, or most research projects may take 2 hours. Just as we get used to these temporal norms, so do our clients, the people who review and approve these bills. Just like every law has an exception, these temporal tendencies have outliers. It's important to be descriptive enough to explain why our tasks are outliers. Here are some examples:
a) Prepare Answer and Affirmative Defenses to Plaintiff's nine-count Complaint (3.2);
b) Extensive research under state and federal law for cases with analogous fact patterns of alleged retaliation (4.8);
c) Brief research on proper procedure for filing Motion for Writ of Garnishment (0.3)
Following these tips should keep you out of your partner's office for unpleasant chats about poor timekeeping. Hope it helps!
Attorney Craig Salner is a partner with the Miami, Florida, litigation law firm of Clarke Silverglate, P.A. He has been with the firm since graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 2003. He specializes in employment litigation, commercial litigation, product liability and insurance defense. Mr. Salner produces a daily blog on legal issues and beyond which can be found at http://csalner.wordpress.com/.
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