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Practice Tips

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Writing Billing Summaries: Four Tips for the New Lawyer
By Alexander MacDonald

Billing clients doesn’t come naturally to most new lawyers. They’ve never had to break their days into six-minute increments, and they’ve certainly never had to write pithy, one-sentence summaries about those six minutes (unless you count the occasional tweet). So they usually show up for their first day on the job with no idea how to write a billing summary, or really, what one even is.

If this sounds familiar to you, don’t worry. Writing a billing summary isn’t rocket science. You can do it well from day one. All you have to do is cultivate the right habits.

Write as you go.Try to remember what you had for breakfast this morning. What was it? Okay, now try to remember what you had for breakfast last week on Tuesday. You probably have no idea, which is normal.  The human brain has limits: it can only hold so much information in its short-term memory. And that’s especially true for the brain of your average attorney, which is already overloaded with cases details, client demands, and deadlines.

Yet the brain’s limitations are no excuse when it comes to billing statements. You can’t just estimate what you did or for how long you did it. Your client is paying a lot of money for your time, and you can’t ethically charge for time you didn’t spend. So unless you can recall exactly what you did—to the minute—days or weeks later, your only ethical option is not to charge.

But that’s not a sustainable practice. The firm has already paid you for your time, and it’s expecting you to bill for it. It’s not in the firm’s interest—or yours—to lose genuinely billable hours. Keep not charging, and you’ll quickly find yourself looking for a new line of work.

So what do you do? There’s really only one solution: keep track of your work in real time. This isn’t as tough as it sounds. Just open a Word document and keep a running log. Write out your tasks, the time you started, and the time you stopped. Then, at the end of the day, enter your tasks into whatever billing system you use. It’s that simple.

Yes, keeping this kind of log is a pain in the neck. But if working as a lawyer were all sunshine and roses, they wouldn’t pay you to do it. Yet they are paying you to do it—if you’re lucky, quite a lot. The least you can do in return is bill accurately.

Include lots of detail. Each billing statement has two audiences. The first audience is whoever approves the bill inside the firm, usually a partner. It’s the partner’s job to approve your bills before they go to the client. So your first goal is to convince the partner that what you did was worth billing the client for.

Your second audience is the client, who will read the bill even more closely than the partner. After all, that bill is coming out of the client’s pocket. So your second goal is to convince the client that what you did was worth paying for.

Both audiences want to approve your work. The partner wants to bring in revenue, and the client wants your legal services. Neither of them gets what they want by disapproving your bills. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to trust you blindly. You have to show them your work has value, and you can’t do that if you provide too little detail.

For example, let’s say your client wants a liability waiver for people who will attend an event it’s holding in Illinois. You need to check whether a waiver like that is enforceable. You spend an hour on Westlaw and find out that it is. In your billing statement, you write, “Legal research – 1 hour.”

That statement doesn’t give either audience what it needs. It doesn’t tell them what you were researching, why you were researching it, or how the research is going to help the client. It’s completely lacking in detail, which will only lead them to ask questions.

It’s your job to anticipate those questions and answer them before they’re asked. Every entry should state, at minimum, precisely what you did and how it connects to the client’s goals. So in this case, you should have written something like this: “Research Illinois caselaw on liability waivers to ensure the client’s waiver form is effective. One hour.”

Including that extra detail will cost you only a few seconds. And in the long run, it will save you much more time than that. It will answer questions before they arise, which means you won’t have to spend time later justifying your bills—or making up for time you couldn’t charge.

Break up your entries. This is another way of saying, “Don’t block bill.” Many lawyers fall into the habit of billing their time in non-descriptive chunks. (These lawyers, by the way, tend to be the same lawyers who don’t track their hours in real time.) For example, they might write, “Motion to Dismiss – Jones v. Company,” and charge fifteen hours.

That’s a bad practice for two reasons. One, it’s likely to lead to estimating time, which again, is at best a poor business practice and at worst unethical. Second, it’s bad for client relations. Remember, with each billing summary, you’re telling the client what value you provided. A block summary doesn’t convey that value. In fact, it’s likely to convey the opposite. The client will see a fifteen-hour bill and wonder how you could have possibly spent that much time on one task.

By contrast, the client is much more likely to understand your work’s value if you bill it in discrete chunks. For example, instead of billing fifteen hours for a motion, you might bill five hours for analyzing the case file, five hours for jurisdiction-specific research, and five hours for drafting the motion itself. Broken up that way, your time won’t seem excessive. Instead, it will reflect the real work you did and the value you provided.

Write in the present tense. Let’s say you’re researching whether the laches doctrine applies to a particular cause of action. You spend two hours looking into it. But before you can finish, you’re called away to work on a different case. You write, “Researched application of laches doctrine to wrongful-termination claims.” You wrote in the past tense, which sounds like you finished researching the issue. So when you return to the project later and bill again, the client may ask why you had to do the same work twice.

You can avoid misunderstandings like that by rephrasing your entries. Instead of using the past tense (“researched”) write in the simple present (“research”) or present-progressive (“researching”). Those tenses don’t give the false impression that you’re finished. Instead, they convey—accurately—that you spent a certain amount of time performing a task, which you may take up again later.

This may seem like a small nit to pick. In fact, billing itself can seem inconsequential next to the complexity of your daily work. When you’re knee-deep in deadlines, it’s easy to start thinking of billing summaries as nuisances.

When that happens, remind yourself that the only thing keeping a roof over your head is happy clients. And clients aren’t happy when they can’t understand what you’re charging them for. It’s your job to help them understand. And the best way to do that is by writing clear, accurate billing summaries.  

Alexander MacDonald is an associate attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP, in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law and the editor in chief of the Practice Tips Series. He can be reached at