Paralegal Billing

For most of us, billing is a necessary evil.  I have worked with enough paralegals to know that if they could get rid of one task in their day to day work life, it would be billing.  However, I think that it does not have to be that bad. 

When training new paralegals in billing procedures, I use the same advice that was given to me by one of my mentors.  I hope it will help you better understand billing and make you more comfortable when faced with that blank timesheet. 

  1. Keep accurate time;
  2. What, whom and why???????

Keep Accurate Time

It is very important to keep accurate time.  We all fall into the trap, at times, to “cut” our own time. 

I remember when I started, I did not want to give the partners or my immediate attorney the impression that I did not know what I was doing.  Therefore, I felt it was better if I gave them the impression that I was completing my tasks faster than the paralegal down the hall.  It did not matter that the paralegal down the hall had more experience and had been handling the same type of cases for much longer than I.  The only thing that mattered to me was that I was faster.  I was working almost ten hour days and only billing for seven.  Eventually I burned out.  Some days I was so tired I could barely do my seven hours.

Today, I try to get accross to the paralegals in my training seminars that it does not matter how long it takes you to get the work done.  Ok….. yes, there are time when it does matter.  For example, if it takes you a full day to read a two paragraph letter.  Most of the time it does not matter how long it takes you to complete a task.  If the partner responsbile for the file does not want to bill client the total amount of hours that it took to complete the task, it is the partner’s responsibility to adjust the time and not bill the client.  Time often gets written off in law firms.  Most of the time it is no one’s fault.  It just happens.   Additionally, there are other benefits of keeping accurate time.  By keeping accurate time, the paralegal is assisting the firm in making staffing decisions.  Maybe the project is better suited for a team of paralegals instead of one paralegal.  By looking at the amount of time billed on a particular project, the attorney can make recommendations on staffing for the department and the firm can make budget decisions.  Further, by allowing the firm to see how much time you are billing and how much work you are doing, your chances of a good bonus and a good raise may increase.   

What, Whom and Why???????

What does this mean???? Sometimes billing descriptions can be so frustrating.  I remember sitting in front of a blank timesheet and not having a clue as to what to say?  Until that one mentor I mentioned above said those three words to me. 

When you are billing you are basically telling a story.  You are telling the client, the person that is paying for the bill, that you did something you think is worth “X” amount of dollars and you expect to be paid for it.  But that is all that the client has to go on.  Now, if you were faced with a billing entry in the amount of $500.00 which only said “review documents.”  Would you pay for that?  If I were going to pay that bill I would want to know a little more about what had been done.  If you answer the three questions, you will be providing the client with all the information he/she needs. 

What?  What did you do?  Whom?  To whom did you write the letter, make the phone call?  Prepare the memo?  Why? Why did you take the time to do that?  Is discovery ending?  Are you trying to find out more information in order to answer discovery?  Is there a trial date?  Did your adversary ask you for more information? 

Remember that the more time you spend on a task the more specific you need to be.  Think of it in terms of money.  The client wants to see content.  Most of the time they will not contest the bill if they know what they are paying for. 

Paralegals and Pro Bono Work

Pro Bono work has been a part of the legal profession for as long as I have been a paralegal.  Attorneys on their own and through various organizations have been providing free legal services to members of the community who would otherwise not be able to afford legal representation.   The ABA under Rule 6.1 of their Model Rules of Professional Conduct set forth an ethical duty for providing these types of services.  Additionally, the ABA, under their Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services states that paralegals should be allowed to assist the attorneys in the representation of these clients.

We are all aware that the need for free legal services is growing by leaps and bounds.  With the state of the economy today, it is bound to grow even faster.  “The ABA Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, in its 1994 Legal Needs Report, states that 79% of those in low income households do not obtain the services of lawyer to handle their legal problems. ”  See How to Utilize Legal Assistants in Pro Bono Public Programs by The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals, May 1999.  Back then, and still today, the ABA agrees that the utilization of paralegals in the representation of these cases can “help extend the availability of these services.” 

Programs for the indigent are run on very tight budgets.  The paralegal’s billable rate is lower that that of the attorney.  However, the paralegal can perform many of the tasks that are presently being handled by an attorney with a much higher billable rate.  Economically speaking, it makes sense to allow paralegals to handle much of the case load.  One can hire two paralegals for the price of one attorney.  This model leaves the attorney free to represent the client in legal matters not suited for the paralegal, and saves on monetary resources for the organization to be able to represent additional clients.

What can the paralegals do?

“As defined by the ABA, a legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation , governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Ibid

In accordance with the above definition provided by the ABA, the paralegal can perform a number of tasks under the guidance of an attorney:  client intakes which can be time consuming can be handled by a volunteer paralegal, referrals to specific state agencies; collection and dissemination of various discovery issues (depending on the type of case); also depending on the type of cases some paralegals can be trained to provide direct client advocacy such as CASA.

If your firm does not have a pro bono program.  I suggest you get in contact with your supervisor and be the first to develop such a program.  They can get in touch with their local bar associations and develop a program.  However, if you are not employed at a firm that supports volunteering, there are various organizations you can contact and become involved with.  Most paralegal organizations can direct you to a program in your area:  The National Association of Legal Assistants and The National Federation of Paralegal Associations.  You can also contact The ABA Center for Pro Bono, their phone number is (312) 988-5759.

Volunteering is a way to give back to your community and, on a more selfish note, it is a way to get involved in different areas of the law which will help you figure out what areas of the practice are best suited for you.  In my opinion this is a win/win situation.