The Ten Commandments (of Billing)

Posted on Categories Legal Ethics, Legal Practice

As an exercise for my ethics class, I had each student write down his or her top ten commandments of billing.  My hope was that the students would both learn these rules and have them in a nice, easy place to find and print once they start practice. As the Ten Commandments was on this past weekend, it seemed appropriate to post the top ten commandments from the class.

1.  Thou Shall Keep Track of One’s Time, Whilst Not Waiting Until the End of the Month to Write Them Down.

2.  Thou Shall Scribble Thy Fees on Papyrus and Present Them to Thy Client

3.  Thou Shall Not Overbill, Nor Double Bill, Nor any Multiples Thereof

4.  Thou Shall Not Bill Your Client for an Hour of Work Because You Thought About the Case for Two Minutes in the Shower

5.  Thou Shall Not Runneth The Meter for Additional Billing Hours

6.  Thou Shall Not Wing It; Thou Shall Have and Hold to Thy Billing Guidelines

7.  Thou Shall Not Recycle Thy Work as if It Had Been Born Anew

8.  Thou Shall Return Thy Clients’ Phone Calls

9.  Thou Shall Not Sue Thy Clients for Unpaid Bills (Unless You Want to be Countersued for Malpractice)

10.  Thou Shall Not Sell Thy Soul to a Firm with Billing Requirements that Do Not Meet Thy Personal Expectations for a Work and Family Balance

Are we missing any of your favorite commandments?  What else should we make sure our students think about in order to avoid the messiest of conflicts, those with clients?

6 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments (of Billing)”

  1. Here’s a question I never really found a satisfactory answer to: is there an ethical rule or principle about which way to round? I.e., you work for 25 minutes on something that’s being billed in 15-minute increments. Do you round up to .5 hours or down to .25 hours?

  2. Prof. Boyden,

    Since 25 minutes is about .42 hours, wouldn’t you round it to the nearest 15 minute increment, which is .5 hours.

    Ethically, consistently rounding to the nearest 15 minute increment means half the time you round up, half down. That’s fair to clients and fair to you. Seems ethical to me.

  3. Relative to Bruce’s question, I think the answer, in practice, is sort of like the profession’s response to the ethical dilemna involved in putting on a witness who will lie. We resolve not to know. I don’t think most practitioners carefully time their tasks.

    But there are those who round up and not just to the nearest tenth. Years ago, I represented the Milwaukee Journal in a libel action brought by a lawyer who the paper reporter had overbilled the public defender’s office. His office apparently had a practice that everything was .3/hour. Any phone call. Any letter. Anything. I have heard of other lawyers for which the minimal billing unit is an hour. None of this was communicated to a client but justified by some notion of the time it takes to shift from one task to another.

  4. Sean, that was my intuition as well. But others had a different intuition, which is that you must always round down. If you don’t work a full additional 15-minute increment, it doesn’t get billed. And I’m sure there’s others out there who believe it’s permissible to always round up, kind of like phone companies do.

  5. I think Prof. Esenberg’s story speaks to the question. It hardly matters which way you round as long as 1) your time records are reasonably accurate, 2) your rounding is consistently applied, and 3) you communicate this to the client before-hand. Then you could round to the nearest week and be ethical. Your clients will surely communicate their feelings about your rounding practices if they are unacceptable.

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