Looking for a lawyer who loves marching to the point twos of the billable hour? Good luck with that. Still, tracking and billing time to clients is an everyday reality for most partners, associates and paralegals. And doing it well—capturing all of your time, accurately—is vital to their success, and the firm’s.
Billing has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been working with a talented senior lawyer to diagnose and treat some bad billing habits that were starting to affect her success. She was motivated, and ready to change, and her efforts to embed a new routine—capturing all time throughout the day in streamlined, descriptive narratives—paid off quickly. She started meeting her monthly billing target with little increased effort. And by creating a steady routine, she freed up personal time, made space for neglected non-billable projects, and, perhaps most importantly, was able to let go of the constant, low-lying anxiety that billing pressures can create (if you’ve been there—I have—you know exactly what I mean).
All of which got me thinking. At a time of year when so many lawyers (and their career development supporters) are pondering goals and plans for 2013, and many firms are putting together learning programs for the year’s incoming students, should billing skills be top of the list, alongside or even above the usual suspects like black letter law and business development? After all, as Stephen Covey noted when discussing the time management parable about rocks, pebbles and sand, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never fit them in later. And the truth is that while everyone agrees that it would save time, money and stress to improve billing practices, it is one of the skills areas that we often fail to get to. It’s hard, and it’s hardly racy. But it’s so worth it.
Helping lawyers tackle the big rock of billing skills
1. Get talking about it. Read Ellen Freedman and Claire Barnes’s article Capturing More Time (and Billing it Too!), available on the Canadian Bar Association’s Practice Link site. Consider using it as the jumping off point for discussion at your next practice group CLE.
2. Seek guidance on it. If you are a mentor, or have a mentor, suggest billing practices as a topic for an upcoming meeting. How do you do it? When do you do it? How much time do you spend doing it? What do your narratives look like? What do you do when….? If you are responsible for your firm’s mentoring program, suggest it to your pairs as a meeting topic, and get an extra gold star by sending the mentors a list of points to guide the discussion.
3. Refresh and revive your firm’s position on it. Consider whether it is time to refresh (or create) firm policies about billing, including creating consistent narratives. (Re)introduce the policy by practice group so that senior people can share what they do and what they expect with more junior people. Include members of the finance team, who will have lots of intel on where people can go awry, and how billing and collections headaches can be prevented.