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Why You Never Want to Get Lazy With Your Time Keeping

3 min read

Why You Never Want to Get Lazy With Your Time Keeping

This post is directed toward those of you who fail to accurately record your time on a consistent basis throughout the day, day after day. I know it can be a hassle, but there are really good reasons why this should be a priority. But first, a story to set the stage.

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George and Gracie were divorcing. George decided to hire an attorney at a low profile new local firm. Gracie decided to hire a high-profile high-powered lawyer at a big-name firm in town. You know the type, think hired gun. Thankfully, both lawyers were able to work well together. They managed to settle the matter on the eve of trial, which meant their clients were able to avoid the high costs of a trail. In fact, Gracie’s lawyer even commented to Gracie’s father that he didn’t bother to prepare for the trial because he knew it would settle. For the time being, everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, Gracie’s happiness ended abruptly when the final bill she received set forth an amount due that was higher than anticipated and provided no details. In contrast, throughout the course of representation, George’s lawyer kept meticulous time records. His final bill was detailed and reviewed for accuracy prior to being sent.

In light of the details in his bill, George decided to try and help. He asked his lawyer for another copy of his bill. He stated that Gracie was concerned about the bill she received due to the lack of detail. Her bill simply read “Dissolution - $18,000.” George provided Gracie with a copy of his bill so she could review it. She suspected George’s bill would be lower by perhaps a third due to her awareness of the rate each lawyer had charged. However, once she took a look at it, she was shocked to find that George’s bill was close to two thirds less. This is when Gracie decided to contact her lawyer and ask for a detailed line-item breakout of her entire bill.

Gracie was given a bill with the requested information. Immediately her attention was drawn to a line item which stated eight hours trial prep at $350/hr. for a total of $2,800. Apparently, Gracie’s lawyer had forgotten about the comment he made to her father the day it all settled. Upon further review of both bills, Gracie discovered additional discrepancies not only in deposition time, but much more. In the end Gracie filed a formal grievance against her attorney and never paid her bill.

While we’ll never know what Gracie’s lawyer was thinking when he drafted his detailed bill, one can surmise that he had no contemporaneously made time records to refer to. Without a doubt he felt he needed to do all he could to justify his fee. Not only would estimates have to do; he almost certainly was forced to rely on his memory in order to detail the actual services delivered.

Now, as tempting as it is not to, I’m going to give Gracie’s lawyer the benefit of the doubt and assume he actually did do eight hours of trial prep for a divorce. It just wasn’t Gracie’s divorce, which is an outcome that wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I mean how could anyone accurately remember all that happened in each and every open matter weeks, if not months later, to include comments made to others in passing? When it comes to accurate time and billing, memory doesn’t cut it.

This story underscores the value of contemporaneously made time records; but time records aren’t just about making sure you can legitimately bill out for all you do. They also enable you to comply with your ethical obligations. Many jurisdictions have strict ethical rules and guidelines that mandate the fee be reasonable and the bill be truthful and accurate. But there’s more.

Let’s put any fallout from the disciplinary matter of this story to the side. Referrals and repeat work are the bread and butter of most legal practices and both depend on one’s reputation. It can take years to build a solid reputation and minutes to destroy one. George and Gracie certainly told their story just as I did here. Unlike me, however, they would have used real names, which means word got out. The reputation of both lawyers and firms had to be impacted to some degree, just in different ways.

You see, the issue I’m really talking about here is your desire to have clients place some of their hard-earned money into your competent hands. Should you ever play fast and loose in your effort to have that happen, you risk having your clients feel cheated; and when it comes to money, being cheated out of it leaves a really bad taste in one’s mouth. Trust me, I know.

Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.

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