Effective Time Entries
As most legal professionals know, doing work and billing time is only half the battle. When clients refuse to pay their bills, it doesn't matter matter how much time you logged, you are not getting paid.
Big firms know that a good time entry means the difference between getting paid, having to offer a discount, or getting completely stiffed. They want clients to pay their full bill, every time, in a timely manner, and to be happy when they do. This is why they invest the time to develop and enforce a style guide.
A style guide is a set of rules that standardize the policies regarding how firm members create time entries. It covers topics such as what words, punctuation, tense, and formatting standards to use.
An effective style guide is easy to understand and helps firm members create time entries that are professional, keep clients happy, and make them want to pay their bills.
Making Clients Want to Pay their Bill
Some attorneys think that client non-payment is unavoidable, but what most attorneys do not realize is that clients are more likely to pay bills that are concise, easy to read, and clearly illustrate what work was done.
If a client understands how you are delivering value and the extent of the work you are doing, they are far more likely to appreciate the work you do and pay their bills on time.
A Starter Style Guide
While drafting this article, we reached out to leading law firms across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to learn how they coach their staff to create time entries. We compiled the most common and most useful tips for your review.
While the list below is not exhaustive, every firm should develop their own style guide that sets the tone for how they want their firm communicating.
Specify What was Done
Wrong: "Telephone call with H. Martin (opposing counsel)."
Right: "Telephone call with H. Martin (opposing counsel) to negotiate settlement agreement."
Just because you had a phone call does not mean you got something done. Clients are more likely to want to pay for activities that clearly communicate that progress was made.
Provide Details and Justification
Wrong: "Reviewed documents"
Right: "Examined 53 agreements to compare indemnification clauses for internal contract audit."
Every billing entry should provide details on what was done and specifically state what was worked on. The more time that was spent on an activity, the more details that should be provided.
Format Names as First Initial, Period, Last Name
Wrong: "Client", "John Smith", "Theresa", "AA"
Right: "W. Hartley", "J. Smith", "T. Jones", "A. Aaronson"
“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
– Dale Carnegie.
Clients do not want to be referred to as "client" on their bills. It makes them feel that you view them as anonymous. Similarly, if you do not include a last name or an identifier as described in the next tips, your client might be left wondering "Who is Theresa?"
Verify the spelling of all Names
Wrong: "J. Smth", "J. Smyth", "T. Smith"
Right: "J. Smith"
This should be self-explanatory. No one wants to see their name spelled incorrectly. If you were careless enough to misspell a client's name on a bill, then what else were you careless about?
Identify Parties by their Name and Role
Wrong: "A. Suiter", "J. Williams", "T. Jones"
Right: "A. Suiter (Faster Law)", "J. Williams (real estate counsel)", "T. Jones (insurance adjuster)"
Your client likely does not know every single person who is related to their matter. You want to leave your client with as few questions as possible and including an identifier on potentially unknown names will go a long way in keeping questions to a minimum.
In Conferences, Identify All Parties
Wrong: "In-person meeting with company leadership regarding Asset Purchase Agreement."
Right: "In-person meeting with J. Smith (CEO), T. Jones (VP), and Board of Directors regarding Asset Purchase Agreement."
When in a telephone conference or meeting, identify all individual parties unless the parties can be referred to collectively such as "Board of Directors" as listed above.
Do Not Refer to individuals with general terms
Wrong: "Client", "Adjuster", "Opposing Counsel"
Right: "J. Smith", "T. Jones (adjuster)", "M. Sandoval (opposing counsel)"
Your client wants to know that you see them as a person and referring to them by name will go a long way in showing them that you care. Specificity is also important, so be sure to use names with identifiers instead of just "Adjuster" or "Opposing Counsel".
Diction and Punctuation
Use Past Tense Verbs
Wrong: "Review documents", "Confer with counsel"
Right: "Reviewed documents", "Conferred with counsel"
Past tense verbs tell a story and make bills easier to read. The "wrongs" above look more like tasks to be completed, while the "rights" look like completed tasks .
Use Periods at the End of All Entries
Wrong: "Telephone call with J. Smith and T. Jones regarding motion to dismiss"
Right: "Telephone call with J. Smith and T. Jones regarding motion to dismiss."
Leaving a sentence without a period looks unprofessional. Longer descriptions with multiple sentences should always have periods, so shorter descriptions should also include periods for consistency.
Avoid Legal Jargon
Wrong: "Telephone call with J. Smith (Judge) regarding writ of habeas corpus."
Right: "Telephone call with J. Smith (Judge) regarding unlawful incarceration of T. Jones."
You went to law school but your client likely did not. Use words and phrases that your client will understand.
Do Not use Abbreviations
Wrong: "tc w/ oc re. . ."
Right: "Telephone call with J. Smith (opposing counsel) regarding. . ."
While abbreviations may be okay on Facebook or for interoffice communications, you should never abbreviate a billing entry. If you expect your client to pay you $200 for a phone call, you can take the extra few seconds to type out the full words.
Do Not use Contractions
Wrong: "didn't", "that's", "won't"
Right: "did not", "that is", "will not"
Contractions look unprofessional and are unacceptable in business writing. You want your client to view you professionally so avoid using contractions.
Documents and Forms
Capitalize Document Names and Important Words
Wrong: "board resolution", "bylaws", "conflict of interest policy"
Right: "Board Resolution", "Bylaws", "Conflict of Interest Policy"
This tip is intended to help you provide clarity to your clients. Capitalization will let your clients know what is important and draw attention to the substance of each entry.
Refer to Forms by their Full Name
Wrong: "G-28", "IRS 990s"
Right: "USCIS Form G-28", "IRS Form 990"
While you might work with 990's every day, your client does not. Avoid ambiguity in situations like this by typing the full name of the form or forms you worked on.
Improve Timekeeping and Stay Consistent
If your firm is struggling with bills being paid then it is likely that there is actually a more fundamental problem with how your billing entries are shown to clients. Here are some tips for consistent timekeeping throughout your whole firm.
Create a Style Guide
The first step towards effective activity descriptions is to develop a "style guide" to document how each member of your team should be creating their entries. This can be similar to the "Do:" and "Do Not:" sections above, but should also be tailored specifically to your firm and practice area.
Use Faster Snippets
Once your style guide is created, another hurdle you'll encounter is how to keep your whole firm compliant. Providing resources like Faster Snippets for your team members to use to make this process easier will be invaluable in making sure that everyone is using consistent language even if they don't remember everything in your style guide.
It's much easier for someone to type an abbreviation that automatically fills out the desired verbiage than for them to remember every little rule.
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