I received an inquiry from an administrative assistant in a client’s office today, and it was disclaimed with a note saying, “If you’ll charge a fee to answer this question, please ignore this message.” As I set about explaining how I decide what to charge for, it occurred to me this would make a good “open letter” to clients explaining about how I decide to bill or not bill. So, with minor modifications, what follows is that letter:
There is information on my web site that explains the various arrangements attorneys make regarding fees. Though change is afoot, hourly billing is still a very common practice. When billing hourly, the conscientious attorney must always be mindful to bill only for value delivered. Because I value the long-term relationship with the client, this is always at the forefront of my mind when tracking time or preparing invoices. While I certainly expect to be paid for the work I do, I don’t expect money for nothing!
For your information, I try not to charge for “quick questions” and routine correspondence – status updates, etc. In short, for “conducting business.” (I may occasionally miss an item, since it’s not always clear when the conversation starts – whether e-mail or phone – where things are headed. That is why I personally review each invoice before it goes out; I will zero-out trivial interaction whenever it makes sense.) I try only to charge for “lawyering”: answering questions that involve analysis; explaining legal concepts, options, or situations; drafting (writing); or extensive research specific to your situation. (I also charge – but “lightly” whenever possible – for meetings or consultations that relate to strategic planning, assignment/delegation of tasks, management of the calendar, etc. I try to strike a balance between the importance of those conversations vis-à-vis deadlines, priorities, etc., and the administrative nature of the communication.)
A rule of thumb a colleague uses: “Charge for anything that could result in a malpractice claim if you’re wrong.” While I try not to think of it quite exactly that way, there’s something to be said for that point-of-view.
By the same token, I frequently omit logging voice mails or e-mails that are brief and simply informational, so the “dialog” that might seem to be reflected on an invoice is not all-inclusive; there’s a point of diminishing returns where it would take me more time to log the time than I actually spent making a quick note, etc. I also try to trim down the descriptions and such on the invoice so that it’s not too verbose, and doesn’t disclose confidential information. While I want it to be clear enough that you understand the “value” or “service” I provided when a fee is charged, it should not be taken as an exhaustive record of our relationship. I have more notes and detailed call logs in my case management system, should we need to refer back, as well as paper notes I take at meetings, etc.
When in doubt, it’s generally “better to be safe than sorry.” That being said, because it’s important that your bosses know what’s going on, and the advice I give, most questions that would be billable should come through them, or at least be copied to them when time is of the essence. My earlier reference regarding not forwarding my correspondence directly to other employees when I resolved a dispute for you was to avoid the number of people posing questions; it can get tricky if too many employees start posing questions, because it can become unclear whose interests I’m looking out for, i.e., “whose side I’m on.” (We occasionally get into situations where I even have to disclaim to business owners when there’s a conflict between their personal interests and those of the Company, especially where there are multiple owners.)