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Cox: Time records and billings are important risk management tools

Dina M. Cox
April 9, 2014
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protecting practice dina coxIt’s sad but true: The work product of an attorney that clients study most closely is the attorney’s bill. Because of this close scrutiny, coupled with your own standards of professionalism, it is important that your time records and any invoice for services sent to the client be clear, detailed and accurate. Maintaining high standards when it comes to time keeping and billing means that you are more likely to be paid, and paid on time; better able to communicate your value to clients; and, effectively documenting your efforts, energy, and file. Good time keeping and billing fosters healthy attorney-client relationships, and these relationships are less likely to end in a claim or lawsuit. If a claim or lawsuit is filed, detailed and accurate time records can assist in disproving the allegations of malpractice.

Time records and bills should be proofread and edited before being finalized or presented to the client. Misspelled names, lack of consistency, tasks billed to the wrong file, or tasks billed at the wrong timekeeper level or rate can irritate even the most patient and loyal client. Moreover, if the theme of a former client’s claim against you is that you were too busy to give the matter sufficient attention, then error-filled, sloppy time records will only underscore this theme.

When editing and proofreading time records and bills, consider whether work that an attorney did should be adjusted to the paralegal rate for tasks that could have been handled by a paralegal. Consider whether certain tasks should be shown on the bill, but entered at “no charge.” Make sure that the descriptions of the services performed can be understood by the client reviewing the bill. Will the description of the task itself justify the time spent? Each entry should identify what was done and why. When the client is finished reading the bill, she should have a clear understanding of what you and your staff did for the last billing period and why, and she should also be left with the impression that the matter was given sufficient attention and that the time spent on the matter by each timekeeper was reasonable.

An itemized invoice for services rendered gives visibility to work product of the attorney that is otherwise invisible to the client. A great example is legal research and analysis that is not reduced to a memo or report sent to the client. Because clients often don’t see their attorney’s work product on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes rarely see tangible work product at all, an itemized invoice can illustrate to the client the amount of time and energy that the attorney is investing and on what subjects. A monthly invoice can also serve to update the client on the status of her matter when no substantive update or report has been sent within the last 30 days.

Detailed billings or time records can also help in the defense of a claim or lawsuit that is brought against the lawyer or law firm. Often, the very first item a professional’s defense attorney will review is the professional’s time records. If complete, these time records provide a tidy timeline of the representation, they document the dates and subject matter of communications on the matter, and they may illustrate the diligent attention that the attorney and his staff paid to the matter.

Time records can also be a good way to document that you performed certain work that is part of due diligence. For example, telephone calls to the client explaining a certain issue in the case (“Discussion with client explaining ramifications of not naming ABC Corp. as a defendant in the complaint”). Then, when the client claims “you never told me what might happen if we didn’t name ABC as a defendant,” you have not only your memory to challenge that assertion, but you have a time record as well, which the client presumably reviewed when he paid the bill. But be forewarned: If you are a meticulous time keeper, the absence of a time record on a particular task can be significant as well. As the saying goes with medical records, if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.

It is also worth mentioning that lawsuits for unpaid fees should be carefully considered. A lawsuit for unpaid fees should not be filed unless it is absolutely necessary or warranted. Aggressive collection efforts and suits for fees are often met with malpractice claims against attorneys or disciplinary grievances.

Accurate and clear billings by lawyers can serve as a powerful risk management tool. Satisfied, well-informed clients rarely sue or bring claims, even in the face of a legal error. A lawyer is more empowered to resolve disputes or errors with a satisfied, well-informed client. A detailed, timely, and accurate itemized invoice for services rendered can keep your clients satisfied and well-informed. Detailed time records can also help defend against complaints lodged against you.•

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Dina M. Cox is an attorney with Lewis Wagner LLP in Indianapolis. She focuses her practice on professional liability defense, drug and medical device/products liability defense, consumer class-action defense, insurance coverage, and insurance bad-faith defense litigation. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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