How do Attorneys Bill for Their Services?

Posted on 5/2/2017 by Robert Relph in Choosing an Attorney
How do Attorneys Bill for Their Services?

You're probably thinking: “They just send them a bill.” It’s not quite that simple, and for the clients’ sake, it shouldn’t be. Since clients are sometimes paying thousands of dollars for their attorneys’ services in divorce and custody cases, attention to detail and focusing on the welfare of both the attorney and client in the process is important.

When Does Billing Actually Start?

No billing starts until an attorney is retained and most importantly, a fee agreement is signed by the attorney and the client. Other blogs on this site deal with fee agreements, which should be signed by the attorney and the client in every case. It is my opinion that every fee agreement should contain language which allows the client to discuss a question of billing without charge to that client. It is simply inappropriate for a client to have to pay the attorney to discuss the attorney’s billing. Other issues in billing should also be covered by the fee agreement such as when payments are due, and the consequences of failure to pay the bill.

Billing itself is an important process for both the attorney and the client. The client should have the right to be billed monthly, but may not be billed monthly, unless monies are due. What should not happen is a failure to bill regularly, allowing a substantial debt to build up owed by the client to the attorney. This is simply not in anyone’s best interest.

What Should an Attorney's Bill Look Like?

The fundamental question, and the subject of this blog is how do attorneys actually do billings they send to clients? First, the billings need to be specific, and not so general that the client cannot understand the work the attorney is doing and for which the client is being charged. Thus, the more detailed the better. Second, I've seen attorney billings which the terms “paragraph billings,” which means that the attorney has lumped together an unnecessary series of efforts by the attorney, with a summary at the end about the time spent on those numerous efforts. Generally, no bill should contain efforts expended by the attorney over more than one day, and often the efforts expended in one day can be itemized. However, this does not mean that two or three activities cannot be put under one billing amount. For example, a billing could look like the following: “Telephone call from client, and prepare and mail letter to attorney.” Or the following: “Preparation, conference with client, and prepare and mail Motion and Notice of Motion.” In both of these examples the attorney did the work in approximately the same time period. This is not the “paragraph billing” above described.

How Detailed Should an Attorney's Bill be?

Finally, is the issue of the time spent by the attorney on any particular activity or set of activities performed within the same time period. No client should expect that their attorney is using a stopwatch to time the efforts on behalf of the client by the attorney, and actually, in my experience, very few clients do expect such precision. From the client’s perspective individual parts of billings need to have some level of common sense in relationship to the time one might expect to expend on any particular activity. This author has seen overbilling issues by attorneys, and they are troubling, as they are unfair and effect the reputation of the legal profession. Ultimately, the issue for the client is to have trust and respect for their attorney in matters of billing and in all aspects of the representation. The undersigned does not consider legitimate questions asked by clients regarding billing to indicate a lack of trust or respect, but in most cases a simple need for correction or information about the process.