The 'perfect bill' prompts pay, goodwill

Published on: 
Published on 7/16/07

Although the main purpose of your bill is to make sure you get paid, there is a secondary purpose that lawyers often miss: to leave the client with a favorable impression of the services he or she received.

In other words, your bill is another tool for client communication. The perfect bill speaks clearly and directly to clients about how you as a lawyer have improved their lives.

As we've often discussed in these columns, good communication begins at the very start of every client engagement.

Continuing during your engagement, bill in a regular and timely way, using statements that contain a full narrative of the work done and the goal accomplished by that work. A perfect bill does that in three ways:

  1. It's detailed

    Too many lawyers make the mistake of brevity when billing -- for example, "work on motion for summary judgment, 20 hours."

    Break any such charge into its basic elements, with the amount of time needed for each: review key documents and deposition testimony, draft statement of uncontested facts as required by court procedure, research precedents in four similar cases, and so on. Such itemization does not try clients' patience -- it helps them understand just how much you did on their behalf.

    Use action verbs to describe your services. Clearly indicate the specifics of what was accomplished so clients appreciate the effort required for success. When aligning the specifics of what was done (the lawyer's work) to what was accomplished (the value for the client), payment of the bill will be faster and fewer client complaints will occur.

  2. It's convenient

    The perfect bill should be easy to receive and pay by taking advantage of all that technology affords. One simple way to do this is to e-mail bills as PDF files (which cannot be modified by the recipient) rather than sending them through the mail; such convenience and speed often mean quicker payment.

    Consider using an electronic invoicing service. This requires substantial initial setup and coordination and is mainly justified for larger clients. But once it's done, the billing service performs much of the routine work of certifying compliance with the client's billing rules and assigning fees and costs by matter and by lawyer.

  3. It's timely

    If you bill when clients are happy because you've just won a motion or negotiated a favorable deal -- even if somewhat before or beyond the normal billing date -- they're more likely to pay quickly. Such billing places the client on the peak of the "satisfaction curve," the time of least resistance for payment of fees.

    Later, the client will invariably forget how important you were in the process of the result and wonder why the bill is so high. Once in that state of mind, the statement for services will sit unpaid until some future date.

If you'd like more information on constructing a perfect bill, the American Bar Association's General Practice, Small Firm and Solo division made available a variety of resources in the January/February 2007 issue of its magazine, GPSolo. The full issue is available online at

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