Trust accounting is at the heart of the fiduciary responsibility a lawyer has with their client. When done inaccurately, the consequences of bad trust accounting can be severe. Each jurisdiction also has its own set of rules and regulations, so you need to be diligent in your processes.
With the right tools, trust accounting can become a less daunting responsibility. Quickbooks is an accounting software that enables lawyers to automate accounting tasks, manage billing and project costs. Paired with a practice management software like Clio Manage, lawyers can easily streamline their accounting processes and keep all their information up to date.
In this blog post, we’ll show you how to do accurate and compliant QuickBooks trust accounting with Clio—from account set up to syncing data and reporting.
How Clio and QuickBooks benefits lawyers
Enjoy exclusive trust accounting features with Clio
Although QuickBooks makes trust accounting a little easier for lawyers, several trust accounting features are built into Clio that do not exist in QuickBooks Online. These features are designed to keep you compliant with state bar rules and regulations. For example, when used with Clio, QuickBooks Online can help you ensure you keep your trust funds in balance.
Clio helps ensure you aren’t using more money than what is in trust
Your client ledger report lists the client’s individual deposits and withdrawals activities for their specific trust account. When you invoice a client in Clio and pay the invoice with trust funds, Clio will not allow you to apply a payment from the trust for more money than the client has in trust.
For example, let’s say a client has a matter trust balance of $3,500, and this month’s invoice is for $3,752. Clio will only allow you to apply $3,500 toward the invoice payment when you pay with trust funds. After the trust payment is applied, the client will have an outstanding balance owed of $252.00. QuickBooks Online alone does not have a feature to prevent the firm from applying more trust funds than a client has available.
Without this protective feature, a client’s ledger report can show a negative balance. When this happens, it says the law firm spent more money out of trust than the client had in trust. This means one client was using another client’s money—signaling a violation of a lawyer’s fiduciary responsibilities.
Clio helps ensure you’re including a client’s trust balance in their invoice
Clio has another trust accounting feature frequently required by state bar associations: Including a client’s trust balance on their invoice. In Clio, choosing a bill theme automatically includes the current trust balance you want on the invoice. QuickBooks Online alone does not offer this option on an invoice. You need to manually calculate the trust balance and add it to each client’s invoice.
Monitor your financials easily
The matter dashboard in Clio gives you an instant overview of the financials, including work in process, outstanding balance, and matter trust funds. In QuickBooks Online alone, it takes three different reports to see these amounts.
Financial data management and reporting is simple and accurate
By using Clio with QuickBooks Online, you can sync trust transactions, along with contacts, invoices, and financial information seamlessly between both tools—eliminating repeat data entry.
You can also understand staff performance and determine compensation by linking staff names to billable hours and exporting to QuickBooks Online. An automated trust workflow ensures that you reconcile amounts in trust between Clio, QuickBooks Online, and your associated bank accounts.
Transaction syncs are fast and accurate—ensuring that end-of-month financing is pain-free and you handle your finances in line with legal ethics requirements.
How to choose the right QuickBooks Online plan for trust accounting
To begin setting up a trust account, you need to pick the right QuickBooks Online subscription. Your QuickBooks Online subscription level affects your ability to do QuickBooks trust accounting. You will need to use either the Essentials or Plus subscription. Though EasyStart integrates with Clio, it does not share information at the client level—a requirement to do accurate trust accounting.
The section below goes over the following steps you need to take to set up a trust account in QuickBooks Online and Clio. But first, let’s go over a quick summary of each plan to help you decide which one best suits your law firm’s needs.
- Basic accounting features include tracking income and expenses, organizing receipts, invoicing and accepting payments, sending quotes and estimates, running reports.
- Everything in EastStart.
- Multiple Users.
- Manage bills & payments.
- Multi-currency support.
- Track time.
- Everything in Essentials.
- Track project profitability.
- Track inventory.
Quickbooks also offers a 30-day free trial on any plan.
How to set up a trust account in QuickBooks Online and Clio
Start the QuickBooks trust accounting process in QuickBooks Online by setting up a trust account. You can either set up a trust account by adding a new account or modifying an existing bank account.
You can find the chart of accounts under “Accounting” on the black menu bar along the left side of the screen.
To set up a new trust bank account:
Go into your chart of accounts and click on the green “new” button in the upper right of the screen. Set the account type to be “bank” and the detail type to “trust account.” You can name the account “Trust Account” or “IOLTA Account.”
To modify a current bank account:
Go into your chart of accounts screen. In the far right column beside the bank account name, click the black downtick beside the View register, and click on Edit. From the pop-up screen, you will be able to edit the Detail Type to “trust account.”
The most important detail in setting up or modifying the account is to have the account detail type: Trust account. When you integrate Clio and QuickBooks Online trust accounts, if the account detail type is not Trust account, you will not see the account in the Clio sync screen.
Add your trust liability account in QuickBooks Online
Next, you will need to add your trust liability account in QuickBooks Online. For the trust liability account, the account type is Other Current Liabilities, and the account detail type is Trust Accounts – Liabilities. Again, if the detail type is not set up as Trust Accounts – Liabilities, you will not see the account in the Clio sync screen.
Set up an advanced client cost account
Now let’s talk about the costs you pay as a lawyer on behalf of your clients. Hard costs are the costs incurred by your law firm, whereby you directly pay the vendor on your client’s behalf. Soft costs are the costs that you cannot track directly back to your client because you did not directly pay the vendor on behalf of your client. Examples of hard costs are filing fees or medical records. Soft costs might include postage or copies.
Hard costs entered into QuickBooks Online will automatically push back into Clio (providing you have the feature set up). To set up an advanced client cost account in QuickBooks Online, add a new account with a distinct name. The account type is: Other Current Assets account. The account detail type is: Loan to Others.
We use this account detail type because when you pay a client’s expense on their behalf and expect reimbursement at a future point in time, you are loaning the client money. For example, your law firm pays a filing fee in August and puts the expense on the client’s September bill/invoice. You have loaned the client the amount of the filing fees you paid. It is not an expense to your firm. It is a loan to your client.
Rules for managing trust accounts
According to The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.15: Safekeeping Property, there are three requirements for trust accounts that most lawyers have to deal with:
- You need to keep your trust account separate from your own property.
- Your trust account needs to be in the same state as your legal office (whether you work from a physical or remote office).
- You need to keep complete records of your trust account funds for about 5 years (or as long as 10 years).
Although these sound like fairly simple rules, they can be tougher to implement than you think. But the right trust accounting tools, like Clio and Quickbooks, can help you make sure you remain compliant while practicing.
Keep a client ledger for each client’s funds
Law firms often ask us if you have to open a separate trust account for each client. The quick answer is: No, you don’t. Also, most law firms use an IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts) account for their trust account. An IOLTA account puts all the law firm’s clients’ money together. Although this isn’t wrong, you have an additional responsibility to distinguish one client’s money from another.
To do this, you have to generate a report that shows whose money is in the trust bank account, broken down by the client. It’s not enough to say your trust bank statement agrees with the QuickBooks Online Trust bank balance. You also need to keep a client ledger of each individual client’s funds.
A client ledger will tell you:
- How much money belongs to a client.
- The amount of money you’ve paid out on behalf of that client.
- How much money you have left in the trust account for the client.
For example, if you have 10 clients with trust funds, you need to maintain 10 separate client ledgers. The more clients you have, the more successful you are at retaining clients. However, this also means you’re giving yourself more paperwork.
Check the rules for your state
Since every state has their own requirements regarding trust accounts, make sure you look up rules for your jurisdiction. For example, North Carolina’s trust account handbook states that a trust account must be “an interest or dividend-bearing account” approved by the North Carolina IOLTA commission. You must also notify the commission when you’re opening or closing the trust account—by filing the right kind of paperwork for each of these actions.
Make sure your financial institution is approved by your State Bar
A financial institution has to be approved by the State Bar to offer an IOLTA account to a law firm. Part of the approval process a bank goes through includes an agreement with the state bar that if an IOLTA account is overdrawn, the state bar will immediately be notified. It is not only possible, but probable your state bar will know at the same time you know if your IOLTA account has an overdraft(s). Accuracy in maintaining your trust account is paramount.
How to manage trust accounts in QuickBooks Online and Clio
Follow these steps below to make QuickBooks trust accounting with Clio as smooth as possible. To start, Clio makes it easy to manage all funds held in trust on behalf of your clients. Most jurisdictions require that law firms address three primary requirements when managing client funds (be sure to check with your local authority for rules that apply to your law firm):
- Account identification. Law firms must deposit funds into an account labeled specifically as a trust account.
- Segregation of accounts. Law firms must keep client funds separate from a lawyer’s own funds.
- Accounting records. Law firms must create and maintain appropriate records of funds belonging to their clients.
Here, we’ll look at how Clio helps you meet all of these requirements with its trust accounting features and workflows.
Bank accounts in Clio
In Clio, you will need to establish two separate bank accounts. One for your operating account and one for your trust accounts. Typically, these are the accounts your Clio trainer set up with you during your initial training session. To see these accounts from Clio, click on accounts on the black menu bar along the left side of your screen.
The “Transactions” sub tabs within a Matter and a Contact card will give you a microledger of the transactions of a given account for that Matter or Contact. These microledgers are where you will be doing the bulk of the recording of incoming Client Trust funds and viewing the line items to ensure the funds are accurate.
For more information on how to enter client funds into trust from within a Matter, this support article will help.
You can create a law firm’s client ledger report in Clio. On the black menu bar on the left of your screen, click on “Reports,” then go to the section Client Reports. The report that will show the client’s detailed activities of their trust funds is called the Trust Ledger. There is also a report that will show just the client’s balance of their trust funds called the Trust Listing.
A firm’s client ledger report can also be created in QuickBooks online, using the Trust liability account you created. We will discuss the importance of creating your client ledger report in QuickBooks Online when we discuss the three-way reconciliation process below.
If the deposited Trust Funds require a transfer between accounts, from the Transactions tab within the Contact or Matter, click “Transfer funds” on the right-hand side. In the “Transfer funds” window, add the information for your transfer. Here, you can specify the Source account where the funds are coming from, the Destination account where the funds are moving to, the amount that should be moved, and any other pertinent details. Once finished, click Record Transfer.
Viewing trust information in an invoice
As mentioned above, Clio has another account feature that is frequently required by state bar associations—including a client’s trust balance on their invoice. To do this in Clio, choose a bill theme that automatically includes the current trust balance to be shown on the invoice.
Three-way account reconciliation
A three-way reconciliation is a process where:
- A firm validates the bank statement agrees with the QuickBooks Online trust bank account balance
- The QuickBooks Online trust bank account balance agrees with the trust liability account
- The trust liability account agrees with Clio’s trust ledger report
The trust bank statement is considered the source of truth. The financial institution has no stake in your law firm and is only documenting what has happened at the Bank. Three-way reconciliations should be done monthly—when you reconcile the bank statement. Also, many state bars require copies of the reconciliations.
Trust funds in Clio can be held at either the client level or the matter level.
Clio and QuickBooks Online = The perfect trust accounting partners for lawyers
There are many benefits to managing QuickBooks trust accounting with Clio and QuickBooks Online for lawyers, including:
- Making sure you are doing accurate, compliant trust accounting
- Ensuring you’re including a client’s trust balance in their invoice
- Ensuring you aren’t using more money than what is in trust.
QuickBooks for lawyers is important as it provides a financial platform. But using it with Clio makes it specific to your legal workflows, as Clio provides the legal practice management platforms to run your law business. It’s no wonder why QuickBooks is the top trust accounting software choice among legal professionals.
Trust accounting with QuickBooks Online and Clio is easy. When setting up a trust account in QuickBooks Online and Clio, make sure you’re using the right QuickBooks Online subscription. Be sure to go through the steps mentioned above for setting up a new trust account. To ensure you are managing your accounts in an ethical and compliant way, always check the rules for managing trust accounts in your jurisdiction.
We published this blog post in September 2020. Last updated: .
Categorized in: Accounting