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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I worked one summer in a very large, well known (at least in legal circles) law firm. There was an attorney there who called down to the computer support center with a problem. The billing system wasn’t letting him enter all of his billings into the computer. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the problem was the billing system had a limit of 24 hours of billing in a day. The computer support was not sure how to help the lawyer as the computer rework to allow a more than 24 hour day would be extensive, wouldn’t be done in a timely manner to help with the existing problem and would likely not be cost effective as the 24 hour day had never been a problem for any other lawyer at the firm. Then the question was asked of the attorney if he had tried to enter the excess billing on another day. The call was concluded and the billing problem went away.

    On the other hand, the billing is somewhat like the story of the guy who went on a trip from Texas to New York in the winter. In much of Texas (though not all), a heavy winter coat is not required, but would be at the same date in New York. So he bought a coat and put the purchase on his expense report as the coat had no personal value and would only really be useful on this one trip for company benefit. The expense report was kicked back as the coat was not deemed a reasonable expense. He re-submitted the expense report with out the coat, but with the same total expenses. In short, the coat was in the expenses, you just couldn’t find it.

    Does a lawyer really need 30 minutes to read and inwardly digest a file? Who is to say that it wasn’t 15 minutes of work stretched over half an hour. Who is to say the lawyer doesn’t pad on the non-trackable time (for example time spent preparing or reading) to make up for the examples here (e.g. “but for” time).

    Bottom line is that your lawyers bill is likely to be only as ethical as your lawyer.

  2. vnjagvet says:


    Again, we are in complete agreement. A cheat is a cheat whether a lawyer or not.