The Lawyer's Lawyer
Billing for Billing
Q. Whenever my client gets a bill, he calls to question each of my time entries, keeping me on the phone for 30-45 minutes each time. May I bill him for this time?
A. Billing for billing questions is as close as you can come to inviting grievances.
Like it or not, our clients have every right to question the charges contained on their bills. When they do, we must be prepared to answer them.
Although our duty to promptly comply with reasonable requests for information comes with the job, this does not entitle us to bill for billing questions. Like office overhead or administrative tasks, we aren't permitted to charge clients for the time we take to prepare invoices, to answer billing questions, or to call about past-due bills. Finding it unreasonable to bill clients for time spent on such "accounting services," one court thought clients would be "justifiably disturbed" if we billed for these items.
One must distinguish true billing questions from questions about the case itself, your strategy or the anticipated work required to achieve your objectives. To the extent that your lengthy phone calls entail a discussion on your strategy or the merits of the case, at least some part of the call may be billable. But when an inquisitive client calls you under the guise of a billing question, charging some of this time may create more confusion than it's worth.
Confusion may also arise when clients ask you to draft litigation plans, case budgets and other projections. To provide accurate reports, you may have to invest significant time to analyze the case, formulate case strategy, review legal options, and project the time and expense of meeting the client's needs. Can you bill for this analysis, or would this be considered a non-billable administrative or accounting task?
The answer is unclear. To the extent that you can anticipate these issues, you should address them in your retainer agreement. If questions arise later, educate your client on the scope of billable tasks and confirm the conversation in writing to avoid surprises when the bill arrives.
The situation you have presented is a delicate one. To manage it effectively, remain courteous throughout the call. No matter how long it may take, don't say anything that may dissuade the client from asking billing questions. But if and when the conversation goes beyond billing to the merits of the case itself, you may diplomatically inform the client that you will have to bill for that portion of the call.
If you've done your job right, billing questions provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate your strategic acumen and efficiency. If you don't, someone other than the client may call you with questions.