Bainbridge on Attorney Bill Padding
Steve Bainbridge has an interesting look at illegal and unethical billing practices engaged in by law firms. He notes several that are obviously immoral and several that are perhaps merely “unsavory.”
Two that aren’t slam dunk cases:
- “But for” billing: But for the stupid client, I wouldn’t be getting up at 4 AM to catch a flight, so I’m billing time from the moment my feet hit the bedroom floor (or leave the house).
So long as one isn’t double billing (charging the client for whom one is doing the traveling while also doing work for another client on the plane and billing him) that strikes me as reasonable. Plumbers, electricians, and even moving companies charge travel time.
- Strategic phone/email practices: When I was in practice, we billed in quarter-hour blocks. This let you pile up your phone messages. You’d set aside an hour, say at 4 PM, to return all the day’s calls. Call Client A. “Is he there?” “No.” “Tell him I called.” That could be billed as 15 minutes. Repeat for the next hour. If you had enough phone emssages, you could clock several hours billable time during an hour or so of real time. Today, most firms bill in 5 or 6 minute blocks, so it wouldn’t work as well. On the other hand, you could try the same thing with email.
My initial thought was that this is fine, so long as one isn’t deliberately picking a time when one expects the client to be out of the office. If it was being done at 6 AM or 7 PM, it’s unethical. At 4 PM, presuming that’s during the client’s workday, too, if there’s a time zone difference, it’s fine. Commenter Brian Sniffen is right, though, that if one is billing a client 15 minutes, one has an obligation to make a good faith effort to do 15 minutes of work; this practice is specifically aimed at doing 30 seconds of work for 15 minutes pay. Regardless, I agree that smaller billing increments are more fair to the client, though.
This is interesting, too:
- Billing time for billing: Charging the client for time spent preparing the bill. Ethical?
I’m with commenter alkali that it’s perfectly reasonable “if the client requires billing in a highly customized format and I’ve discussed with the client that I will be billing for that.” Sniffen disagrees, though, saying billing for all administrative time is customary and expected.