For law firms is there a better way to show value in narratives than just following billing rules?

January 30, 2020

Written by Joey Gawor. Read more from Joey about time entry best practices by clicking here.

It is an interesting situation.

It seems both the clients and the law firms are trying hard to make sure everyone is on the same page. While hourly billing is still the prevalent way that firms get paid, clients feel that every activity by the law firm needs to be scrutinized. That is where the ebilling vendors come in.

So here is what happens. An attorney does the work that they feel is necessary based on the matter they are working on. They fill out their time cards the same way they always have and add task and activity codes that seem reasonable to them. Sounds good right?

Next, the billing department gets those time cards, often at the end of the month when they are rushed to get the bills out and have to go on a mad rush. They look at the time card and notice that there are words that will get rejected as clerical work so change them. “Review” becomes “analyze” or “investigate” and activity codes get changed so that they are not written down for excessive work. That excellent e-biller, that is now worth their weight in gold” catches almost everything and sends it over to the vendor.

Vendors get the invoices and scrub them against the billing guidelines looking for number of pages reviewed, excessive time spent and activities that could have been done less expensively. Write-downs are taken, bills are rejected and ultimately the firm gets paid and graded for bad behavior.

Here is my question.

Are law firms disguising the work that is being done just to get paid for something they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place? Alternatively, are the vendors’ systems catching activities that the firm should be paid for and writing them down on technicalities? After years playing in this arena, I respectfully say that both are correct. There needs to be a better way to show clients they are getting value.

Two years ago at ILTA I met with a senior member from Dentons in the UK and they used a term that has stuck with me and I admit to stealing it and using it ever since. The term is “narrative hygiene” and it would solve a lot of issues on both sides.

Here is the idea.

Rather than checking to see if the narratives just meet with client billing guidelines here is what could happen: An attorney writes “conference with client” in the narrative. Before submitting the time card a box pops up that says “for a client conference you need to have who attended and what was discussed that was of value to this matter.” The technology is there now to make sure this happens and this could be used in many cases to simply make better time cards that show the value of what the firm is doing. If a firm can identify how narratives should be written for specific activities identified by either narrative language or even activity codes they can be prompted to give instruction to the attorney.

As firms and clients look to strengthen their relationships I believe it is ideas like this that will help. The question every business should be asking of themselves is how can I show my customers that I am giving them the best value. This is for every industry and legal is no exception.

Like this piece? Check out Neil Butten’s report Starting the Journey to Law Firm Best Practices for an additional look into assessing business processes and how they contribute to the client experience. 

Joey is a Communications Specialist at Fulcrum GT whose goal is to continually share the most valuable information about technology and processes for modern professional services operations.