To charge or not to charge: being businesslike is professional

Published on: 
Published on 11/7/05

The importance of billing and collecting the money you are owed for legitimate services is obvious, yet many lawyers find it hard to grasp.

Our real hunger is to do the work and bring in new clients. At billing time we may be reluctant to stand behind our hourly rate and say: "This is what I did, this is the time I worked and this is what you owe me."

Some still debate whether law is a profession or a business. To believe, as I do, that law is the business of providing services to individuals and organizations does not diminish professionalism - it merely means lawyers should approach the law in a businesslike way.

Legitimate charges are not unprofessional. You've done the work and should be paid for it.

The starting point for any charge is the fee provision in the engagement letter. Document upfront everything for which payment at the stated hourly rate is expected. Consider the following items.

  • Client communication

    Given the informality of e-mail, I believe few lawyers are truly capturing the time that they're spending on this legitimate client task. Like phone conversations, communication by e-mail on client matters represents billable time. Yet lawyers are going so fast, doing so many things, that they often don't note their time when sending e-mails. And if they don't do it then, by the end of the day, let alone the end of the week, they're going to forget how much tine was needed. The result is incomplete or even no billing.

  • Ancillary charges

    Some lawyers charge their clients for "opening" a file on each matter; others charge for photocopying the file before giving it to the client when requested. My experience says that these are legitimate charges to clients if specified in the retainer agreement. The fact that the client owns his own file does not prohibit the lawyer from contracting to copy it at the client's expense. Of course, if your competitors do not make such charges, or if your client resents being "nickel and dimed" for them, it's your call to charge or not.

  • Administrative activity

    Filing a notice of unavailability or a notice of continuance before an extended absence from the office is often in the client's best interest, and can be considered billable. One can argue that failure to file such notices is a failure to protect the client. If opposing counsel doesn't know you will be on vacation and files a motion or other action requiring special appearance or a later motion of continuance, the client will ultimately pay more than the original time needed for a simple notice.

The rules of professional conduct require that our charges be "reasonable." There is a lot of latitude here, especially in terms of customary practices by lawyers in your community.

Even if you decide against charging for a particular action, at least show the time spent, the charge and a courtesy discount. It may educate your client and be a useful bit of marketing.

This Coach’s Corner Article is listed under the following categories: