5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #3 Bill Thoughtfully and Fairly

Many of us give little thought to invoices we send to our clients.  Invoices are utilitarian and serve an important purpose, at least in a for-profit law practice.  Beyond being a routine request to be compensated for work performed, however, we tend not to give invoices much serious thought.  This can be a mistake.

We should expect that clients will examine with a critical eye everything they receive from their lawyer, whether it is an email, a copy of some work product, or a periodic invoice.  They may look for different things.  For example, a sophisticated General Counsel expects to see high quality legal analysis and skilled advocacy, while less experienced clients may limit their evaluation to whether what they receive looks professional and is free of grammatical or typographical errors.  But every time we transmit written material to a client we invite critical scrutiny of our skills and professionalism.  It is unavoidable.

With this in mind, we should begin to view our invoices, not as a purely utilitarian demand for payment, but as a kind of brochure advertising the quality of our services.  Changes in the way we present our request to be paid can enhance our clients’ trust, not only in our abilities as professional advocates, but also in the fulfillment of our ethical obligation as fiduciaries.

I can think of two billing habits that, if done thoughtfully and consistently, should enhance client trust.  The first coincides with most clients’ chief concern, second only to quality of representation: how much we actually charge.  Similar to my earlier “secret” #1 (Be Honest), it is no secret that, just as we owe clients a duty of candor, we only bill for work we perform at a rate that is reasonable.  That is obvious.  That is Ethics 101, right?

Billing that enhances client trust—the “secret” that is the subject of this post—goes beyond Ethics 101 and enters the more nebulous realm of added value.  I’m not a legal services pricing specialist (a vocation the ABA Journal predicts will soon be a BigLaw fixture), and I try not to over think this stuff.  Instead, I try to follow this golden rule: put myself in the shoes of a client reading my invoice and ask what would I be comfortable seeing and paying if it were me?

There is one absolute truism that seems to resonate with just about any client that is not a Fortune 1000 or larger company: they hate, hate, hate to be charged for telephone calls between the lawyer and the client.  Particularly irritating are billing entries for such telephone calls that last 18 minutes (i.e., .3) or less.  Only clients who work for giant companies that are basically in the business of being sued (i.e., insurance companies, large California employers) can stomach seeing this on an invoice.  Everyone else likes to think they can pick up the phone and ask their lawyer a question—or just shoot the shit—without seeing a $100 (or more) charge for it.  I get this.  However many times we might tell a client “I don’t have anything to sell other than my time,” it is guaranteed to rankle most clients when they are charged for a short phone call with their lawyer.  Sorry.

Now.  Don’t squander an opportunity here.  While I would reduce (or eliminate) the instances you actually bill clients for short phone calls with them, I would continue to ALWAYS record such calls on the invoice, just mark them “no charge,” or something similar.  This engenders trust.  It says to the client, “I am committed to you, I know you want to talk to me without seeing a bill for it and I am willing to go that extra mile for you!”

The second billing habit that can lead to greater client trust relates to how we describe the work we perform.  Just like Tupperware parties, three martini lunches and hiring of first year associates, the days of the simple “For Services Rendered” billing entry are long gone.  But I would argue it’s not enough just to describe a task.  For billing entries to contribute to building client trust, they should not only describe the task but briefly explain, in crisp, clear terms, why the task was necessary.  I think this is particularly important when the task was somehow occasioned by the opposition.  For example, don’t write “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re discovery,” when an equally honest entry would be “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re their request for additional time to respond to pending discovery.”

I also eschew legalese when drafting billing entries for nonlawyer clients.  This sends the message: “I want you to understand what you’re paying for.  I’m not trying to trick you with fancy legal talk.”  Again, this is calculated to gain trust.

I recognize these “secrets” are not brain surgery, or even secret.  But they were things it took me some time to figure out and I hope you find them helpful to your practice.

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