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A client bill should tell a story

client billI recently had the opportunity to hire legal services, as opposed to being a legal advisor. This was not my first time as a client, yet each such experience has given me a fresh insight into “client care”. In this case, the services I received were quite satisfactory, and the problem only arose once I received the bill. Despite the lawyers billing me on an hourly basis, the bill gave me no transparency into who had done what and for how long. (The bill merely stated: "for services rendered in connection with X".)

This was especially shocking in the light of what I had been taught about providing transparency in my client bills. As a young associate, it was drilled into me by the partner I then worked for how important it is to give clients a clear picture of what they are paying for (by providing a detailed invoice that chronologically "tells the story" about how the project is progressing). In fact, even before I began working for this partner, he gave me his standard memo about client care, detailing the way he expects his team members to treat his clients, which included protocols on how to record time, so that when bills were generated entries were consistent regardless of which lawyers were working on the project. For example:

  1. References to names should ideally include both first initial and surname. In the case of Henry Smith, everyone’s time entry for activities involving him must read “H. Smith”—thus avoiding the disarray of “H. Smith,” “Henry Smith,” “Mr. Smith,” “Henry,” or even “the client.”

  2. An entry should not merely read, “Drafting purchase agreement.” Instead it should be specific: “Amending purchase agreement on the basis of negotiations held the previous day, with specific consideration to the licensing rights granted back to XCo in the core technology used in the retained business.” Likewise, a telephone call entry should state precisely what was discussed. Any follow-up activity should then refer back to that telephone conversation: “Draft letter to J. Reed about [______] pursuant to discussion by telephone with H. Smith.”

  3. Should two lawyers work simultaneously on something, or if one lawyer reviews another lawyer's work, exactly how that adds value needs to be clarified with consistency by both lawyers. (Note: If the second lawyer's involvement doesn’t add value, it shouldn’t be billed.)

When lawyers on a project all follow these billing "rules", everyone’s involvement and specific contributions are detailed day by day, so the invoice substantiates and justifies the fees, and clients can find no basis to question the validity of any aspect of the bill. Unfortunately, the firm billing me didn’t seem to be aware of such client care, which left me having no idea what I was paying for. Therefore, despite being satisfied with their services, such treatment made me determined never to use them again!

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