Law firm billing is critical to the success of your law firm. And yet, for many law firms, billing clients and chasing down payments can still be one of the most time-consuming, repetitive, and dreaded parts of the job.
According to the 2019 Legal Trends Report, lawyers record only 2.5 billable hours per day on average, with the rest of their day going towards a variety of tasks including preparing and sending invoices, processing payments, and updating trust ledgers.
The law firm billing process
In many cases, the law firm billing process looks something like this:
- Firm brings on a new client and opens their case
- Billable time and disbursement fees/expenses are logged throughout the case
- At the end of each month (or at the end of the case, if it’s a shorter case), bills and expenses for each client and case are put into a draft bill
- Attorneys add notes and adjust costs as needed and approve the bill
- A final version of the bill is created and sent to clients for payment
- Clients pay via whatever payment methods are accepted at the firm
- Accounting team sends follow-up reminders regarding late payments
This might seem fairly straightforward. However, there’s plenty of room for bottlenecks and wasted costs. For example, attorneys taking too long to approve bills or adding too many edits can cause a delay in bills getting sent out. Or, if time and expenses aren’t tracked accurately, your firm could be leaving money on the table.
Common questions about the law firm billing process
What’s the difference between timekeeping and billing?
With timekeeping, you’re simply recording hours to be billed. Billing is the process of setting that time (and any related expenses) out in an invoice to send to legal clients.
What are billable hours in a law firm?
Under the traditional hourly model, billable hours track time spent on work for clients. Non-billable work is administrative work like marketing, managing utility bills for the office, or accounting. Billable hours are typically tracked in legal billing increments of six minutes at a time, but this is not universal.
What are disbursement fees?
Disbursement fees, or expenses, represent costs related to a legal case above and beyond billable hours for legal work. This might include things like printing costs, photocopying costs, court filing fees, or courier charges.
Writing your law firm’s billing policy
To save your law firm valuable time and money, it’s important to have a clear, standardized law firm billing policy in place. This gives lawyers and staff something to refer to and keeps everyone on the same page.
If you’re writing a policy for the first time, you’ll want to consider:
- How does your firm bill clients? (Is it an hourly, flat fee, contingency, or something else?)
- Where are you seeing the most errors?
- Which stages of the process are causing the biggest bottlenecks? (When bills pass to finance? When they need to be approved? When they need to be sent?)
With the answers to those questions in mind, follow these steps to write an effective law firm billing policy:
1. Provide a law firm billing template and guidelines
These should include when to send invoices, how long descriptions should be, what types of expenses must be included on bills and what should be written off, and any standard introductory communications on bills, if needed.
2. Write out the flow of your law firm’s billing process
Which attorneys on a case need to review a bill? In which order? Are bills mailed or sent electronically? Who needs to be informed when a bill is sent out? Write out your whole billing process from start to finish and ensure there’s no confusion.
3. Set requirements for invoice review
It’s helpful to ask lawyers to use a specific system, such as your legal practice management software, to conduct reviews electronically. This helps speed up the process and leaves less room for error.
4. Integrate the finance team with your billing process
Make sure your accountant or finance team knows when bills are being sent, what still needs to be collected on, and what’s being written off.
5. Include a standard process for disputes and collections
Don’t leave unpaid bills languishing for months. The longer you wait to get paid, the less likely it is your clients will pay you, so have a clear process for collections. This part of your process should lay out who needs to follow up on unpaid bills and when. Have a standard letter or email to send asking for payment (you may also want to automate this part of your billing process).
If a client disputes a bill, know who will review the dispute and provide frameworks for resolving the issue.
6. Have a public billing policy for clients
Your clients should be clear on your billing policy, so they’re clear on:
- How often they’ll be billed
- When bills will arrive
- What type of payment is expected
- How soon they need to pay
- The consequences for late payments
Write this out clearly and make it available to all new clients.
Law firm invoice requirements
If you’re working with a larger company, there may be strict law firm invoice requirements regarding everything from when bills must be sent to how bills must be formatted. However, even if you’re not working with big businesses, you should still stick to a standard set of invoice requirements. This will ensure consistency for your clients‚and keep the billing process running smoothly.
Law firm billing descriptions
Law firm billing descriptions should not be too long or too short on your invoices. They should provide the right amount of context and information to leave the client satisfied that they’ve received the value they’re paying for. Clear law firm billing descriptions lead to fewer disputes later on in a case.
Law firm billing time descriptions could look like:
- “Met with client to review wills and answer questions”
- “Legal research to strengthen arguments for next month’s hearing”
- “Spoke about and recorded the facts of the case with the client”
Law firm billing codes
Separate from descriptions, law firm billing codes lay out—at a high level—which activities or expenses a client is being billed for. Example codes might look like:
These codes should, at the very least, be consistent within your law firm. You may also choose to use standard billing codes as outlined below.
If your law firm works with larger clients, your billing process may include an extra step: Formatting your bills to use LEDES law firm billing codes for time and expense entries.
LEDES, or Legal Electronic Data Exchange Standard, is a standard format for electronic legal billing that uses a very specific format guide. This makes it easier for large organizations to handle large amounts of files and data. It also means organizations can more quickly and easily assess invoices, as all invoices they receive are coded in a standard format.
Likely, unless your client specifically asks for it, you won’t need to provide LEDES-formatted bills. However, it’s worth checking if you’re working with a business or larger client.
You can also use UTBMS codes (Uniform Task-Based Management System Codes) to give further detail on a LEDES bill.
The right legal software can help you easily create LEDES-formatted bills. You can learn more about creating LEDES 1998B-formatted bills in Clio, and learn more about LEDES in general from the LEDES oversight committee.
A law firm billing template
If you’re not sure where to start with standard law firm invoice requirements for your firm, there are plenty of law firm billing templates available. Freshbooks provides an excellent law firm billing template.
Sample law firm billing invoice
Templates are useful, but what does a professional law firm billing invoice look like? Here’s an example:
You can further customize your bill using bill themes in Clio Manage to add your firm’s logo, address, and other items.
Top tips to improve law firm billing productivity
1. Set expectations with clients up front about your firm’s billing process and policies
Good billing comes down to clear communication with clients. A bill isn’t just an invoice: It’s a tool for communicating the value you provide to your legal clients. Don’t sell yourself short!
Depending on your practice area, hiring a lawyer may be one of the most expensive things your client ever does. Spare them from sticker shock and unexpected bills: Set clear expectations from the beginning of your engagement as to what clients can expect to see on invoices, when they’ll receive them, and how they’ll be able to pay.
For example, you may want to send a welcome letter giving clients an overview of what to expect from your firm, like Palace Law does.
2. Track your time as you work for more accurate billing
If you’ve ever sat down at the end of a workday and tried to remember exactly where your time went, you know just how difficult it is to get everything recorded on a bill. Use a timekeeper to track your time as you work, and take notes to ensure the client is crystal clear on the value you’ve provided. This is the best way to ensure nothing gets missed, and that every time entry is accurate.
3. Use clear law firm billing descriptions
Your invoices to clients should be easy to understand, but that doesn’t mean they should lack detail. Make sure you clearly articulate everything you’ve done for your client: A line item for a 15-minute call to review the case with no context might leave a client feeling confused or anxious about the charge.
Consider: Katy Young of Ad Astra Law Group prioritizes adding clarity and detail to bills because she believes it creates trust—which makes her clients more willing to pay.
4. Bill frequently, and consistently
With the right system, law firm bills and reminders can be sent out quickly, so there’s no reason to put off billing your clients. Sending out smaller bills consistently can lower the sticker shock that comes with a large, unexpected bill. Plus, there’s the added benefit of encouraging a smoother cashflow for your firm.
Consider billing monthly, bi-weekly, or even weekly—whatever makes the most sense for your clients, your practice areas, and your firm. Whatever you choose, set expectations about when bills will arrive to avoid surprises and give your clients a chance to prepare their payments.
5. Automate, automate, automate
When it comes to improving your firm’s billing, there’s no need to go it alone. There are plenty of tools available to help automate routine tasks, so you can spend your time and energy on things that can’t be automated—like answering difficult questions or giving your clients peace of mind.
Before you implement any tools at your firm, it’s important to note that process should come before technology. Implementing technology for the sake of implementing technology isn’t a recipe for success. Make a solid effort to understand the kinks in your billing processes, then start looking into tools that could help improve them.
Some examples include:
- Using a platform like Clio Manage to generate draft bills in minutes
- Using InvoiceSherpa to automatically chase late invoices
- Accept credit card payments to get paid faster
Law firm billing rates: Setting the right one for your firm
Of course, one of the most important parts of billing is knowing what to charge.
To start calculating your own law firm billing rates, read this article on how to calculate your hourly rate based on your cost of doing business and the number of billable hours you expect to record in a year (if your firm bills hourly instead of via flat fee or contingency).
Then, check how closely your chosen rate tracks against market rates. Here’s a look at benchmark lawyer hourly rates from the 2019 Legal Trends Report, including actual rates and rates adjusted for cost of living in each state:
Some interesting statistics:
- The highest average hourly billing rate by state was $346 per hour in New York
- The lowest average hourly billing rate by state was $158 per hour in West Virginia
- The highest average hourly billing rate by practice area was a tie between bankruptcy law and intellectual property lawyers at $340 per hour
- The lowest average hourly billing rate by practice area was for juvenile law at $87 per hour.
If you’re low compared to your state’s average law firm billing rates, consider raising your rates. If your rates are higher, think carefully about how you’re providing extra value to your clients to make that rate make sense.
However, at the end of the day, remember that the rate you charge is to some extent up to you. If you’d like to charge a little less to keep legal services affordable for others in your community, like Nicholas Hite does, that’s completely fine.
Of course, you may want to charge different hourly rates for different activities, like document review versus crafting an argument for court. You may also want to charge different hourly rates for more experienced partners versus new associates. You can use a solution like Clio Manage to easily add different hourly rates for certain activities and lawyers at your firm.
Goodbye billable hours: Law firm alternative billing arrangements
What are law firm billable hours? The billable hour has long been a subject for healthy discussion in law firms. It’s alive and well in many practices, but plenty of lawyers advocate that this isn’t the best way to charge for legal services—at least not for every practice area.
Here’s a look at some law firm alternative billing arrangements:
Subscription-based law firm
With a subscription-based law firm, you provide clients with legal services on an as-needed basis for a set monthly subscription fee. This setup works well for small business clients who may need regular help with trademark applications, proactive IP protection measures, transactions, and more.
This leads to more predictable income for your firm, and smoother working relationships. It can be a challenge to get clients to buy into the idea if they’re used to the billable hour, but it’s worth it.
Sliding scale fees
If you work with clients with lower incomes, sliding scale fees may be appropriate. In this scenario, clients pay fees based on their household income, rather than paying a standard rate. This approach can help your firm access more clients by making your services more affordable.
Curious about how sliding scale fees could work for your law firm? Here’s an example of how one law firm has set sliding scale fees.
Another way to provide increased access to legal services is to provide unbundled legal services. This can also help your firm access clients who may not be able to afford full-service representation.
The idea of “unbundled” legal services refers to limited scope representation. The limited scope attorney and the client agree to define the attorney’s involvement in their case. Unbundled legal services can vary greatly, depending upon the agreed-upon task(s), in both litigation and transactional matters. Examples might include evaluating a case or transaction, providing limited litigation or transactional guidance, or suggesting court documents or transactional documents to be prepared.
If you’re able to accurately scope the amount of work required for certain types of cases, flat fees can be an excellent approach to law firm billing. They create clarity on costs up-front, and are a form of value-based billing—meaning that you bill based on the value you provide to your client, rather than commodifying your time.
Of course, there’s some risk of underestimating the work required for a case and setting fees too low. But with diligent case scoping, flat fees can provide an excellent alternative to the billable hour.
With contingency fees, there’s potential to help clients who can’t afford a lawyer, since you’re paid a percentage of the money paid out to the client if the case is successful. Depending on the case, this amount can be quite substantial.
Of course, there’s also the risk that you won’t get paid for your work. But, if you can stomach the risk, billing on a contingency basis is a great way to build a profitable practice and serve those who otherwise might not be able to afford your services.
Note: Contingency fees are prohibited for certain types of cases, so double-check your state’s ethics rules before deciding to bill on contingency.
Evergreen retainers simplify the process of getting paid on time. Here’s how it works: Your client provides an original retainer held in trust against which legal services are billed—and when their trust account hits a predetermined minimum balance, they replenish the funds.
The key with this type of system is notifying clients when trust funds are at or below the minimum balance required.
Technology can help here. For example, Clio’s Evergreen Management features allow you (or a staff member) to easily receive automated notifications when a client’s trust account drops below the minimum balance. From there, you can easily send a new Trust Request to the client.
Given that 44% of law firms say clients don’t pay their bills because they lack the funds to pay at once, according to the 2017 Legal Trends Report, offering payment plans can be a big help for ensuring your firm gets paid.
Before you start, it’s important to set up a system. Create clear guidelines for when to offer payment plans, draft an agreement template to determine how payments will be collected, what methods of payment will be accepted, and what happens when a payment is late.
Then, set up a system for billing clients and collecting funds. Tools like payment plans in Clio Manage can help automate much of the repetitive follow-up that comes with client payment plans, meaning your firm will need to invest less time in collecting on outstanding funds.
Reasonable fees and price transparency
When it comes to ethics and billing, clarity is key.
Rule 1.5 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that a lawyer may not collect an “unreasonable fee” or an “unreasonable amount for expenses.” The ABA provides eight factors to consider when determining whether a fee is reasonable, including fees charged for similar legal services, the reputation of the lawyer, and any time constraints.
Best practice is to make your bills as clear and accurate as possible. If you’re billing by the hour, provide clear, detailed notes on work performed. If you’re billing via fixed fee or contingency, ensure you’ve got solid reasoning as to why your fees are reasonable.
If you’re in the UK, you’ll need to be mindful of the SRA’s price transparency rules, which state that price information must be provided in a clear and easy-to-understand format. Other requirements include the need to provide a total cost, explain the basis of your charges, and clearly communicate what is and isn’t included in your services.
Billing reports and financial status monitoring
In order to keep your law firm billing process on track, you’ve got to keep a close eye on outstanding balances, payments, and revenues. Here are a few billing reports you can use to monitor the financial status of your law firm and keep your billing process running smoothly:
Accounts receivable report
The Accounts Receivable Report helps firms determine amounts outstanding on all open and past due invoices on a per-user, per-client, and per-matter basis. The report details amounts due on approved outstanding invoices, partial payments made towards those amounts, and credit notes applied to invoices.
Accounts receivable aging report
The Accounts Receivable Aging Report is designed to help firms track unpaid bills. The report divides overdue accounts receivable into aging categories (e.g., unpaid bills 1-30 days old, 31-60 days old, and 61-90 days old). This enables you to get paid faster by efficiently following up with clients whose bills are overdue.
Billing history report
The Billing History Report provides a detailed view of which invoices are open receivables, which are past-due receivables, and which invoices have been paid. This provides a complete history of invoicing for clients
Matter balance summary report
The Matter Balance Summary Report gives your law firm a snapshot of how much is outstanding in receivables, as well as how much is work in progress, and expenses in progress, on a per-matter or per-client basis. This allows your firm to look at what future revenue remains to be collected for each matter.
Invoice payments report
The Invoice Payments Report gives firms a detailed view of payments on invoices for individual matters made towards individual service and expense items, and the users responsible for those line items.
The Revenue Report helps your firm visualize and quantify key performance metrics on a per-user, per-client, and per-matter basis. The report details hours, expenses, and taxes in terms of unbilled, billed, and collected amounts.
Law firm collections: How to get paid faster
Law firms often find that it takes too long to get paid. And, looking back to the 2019 Legal Trends Report, of all hours invoiced to clients, 14% are never paid.
If your collections process isn’t running efficiently, your firm is leaving money on the table. Here are four tips to improve collections at your law firm.
1. Improve your timekeeping
One of the most important ways to improve cash flow is to implement diligent timekeeping and recordkeeping habits in your practice. After all, how can you collect on time billed if you haven’t tracked it in the first place? Take notes on what you’re doing, review outgoing calls and emails, and, as mentioned above, track time as you go.
2. Bill consistently
Think for a minute about the way you handle bills in your personal life. When these bills come at a predictable time, you’re able to budget accordingly and pay them on time. When bills are unpredictable and inconsistent, it’s harder to stay on top of things.
Getting bills out on time, at the same time each month, will help your firm collect faster.
3. Send regular reminders
Don’t let forgotten law firm bills slide under the radar. Make it a habit to send regular reminders to clients who haven’t paid. Tools like InvoiceSherpa can help automate this process, saving your firm valuable time and money.
4. Accept credit card payments
If you’re still asking your clients to pay by check, you may be asking them to use a payment method they haven’t used in years (or one they’ve never used). In the digital era, clients expect convenient online payment options. As a lawyer, you can give them this option with online credit card payments.
All it takes is a bit of due diligence to ensure you’re accepting credit card payments in accordance with ethics rules.
First, choose the right credit card processor for your law firm. Law firms need a credit card processor that does not allow chargebacks on trust accounts, and that does not take fees from trust accounts. If a client disputes a charge that results in a chargeback, and the credit card company withdraws money from a pooled trust account, this may cause an ethics violation.
Usually, this means using a credit card processor tailored specifically towards lawyers, such as Clio Payments, powered by LawPay. With Clio Payments, your $20 monthly LawPay subscription is covered, and clients can easily pay bills online via secure payment links.
Bend Law has found that using Clio Payments has significantly improved the firm’s billing and collection process:
Law firm billing software
Still manually drafting bills for your clients? It doesn’t have to be that way. Investing in law firm billing software makes a huge difference in how you spend your time—and mitigates your risk of error.
For example, Clio Manage lets you easily create branded invoices and customized billing plans, and accept payment by credit card with Clio Payments. Clio Manage’s trust accounting features also integrate with your favorite accounting programs including QuickBooks Online, Xero, and Klyant—so it’s easy to keep all of your financial information in sync.
Investing in legal billing software to help your billing process run more smoothly can be invaluable for your firm: Chris Trebatoski of Treblaw LLC gets all his bills out each month in a matter of 15 minutes with Clio—a task that used to take him much longer at a larger firm.
“I spend less time doing my time entries and sending out my bills using Clio than I spent being the Chair of Billing and Collection at a large law firm calling other lawyers saying, ‘Could you get your bill out?’,” he says.
Again, it’s crucial to think about your process before technology, and to avoid haphazardly implementing new tools at your firm. But don’t be afraid of a learning curve when it comes to law firm billing software. Platforms like Clio Manage are more intuitive than you’d expect, and a small investment in learning how they work can yield a lifetime of simplified billing practices for your law firm.
If you’re still unsure, this article can help you determine whether law firm billing software is worth the investment.
Better law firm billing is in your future
Billing is the last step of the client journey, and it isn’t just the act of handing your customer an invoice. It’s about thoughtfully communicating with your client and presenting the value you’ve provided. It’s an opportunity to build trust, cement your relationship, and lay the groundwork for positive reviews and referrals of future business.
When done right, billing can shift from a time-consuming chore to a simple task, and your staff and clients will be happier for it.
Note: The information in this article applies only to US practices. This post is provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal, business, or accounting advice.
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Categorized in: Accounting