How Do Lawyers Bill?

Imagine that you've hired an attorney and you receive your first bill for work done. 

If you're like most people, you look at the bill and it's like reading Chinese. You don't know what the entries mean or why their billed the way they are. And your attorney has never explained how billing works, except to tell you you'll be billed.

Well, let's talk about how Utah lawyers bill for a minute.

The billable hour -- line-item billing

The most common type of billing is the billable hour. Essentially, lawyers bill for time spent working on a case.

When lawyers bill for time spent, they usually do so by breaking down every task completed on a case -- i.e., they line-item their time. So, a bill might include entries like this:

Receive and review and prepare correspondences from and to client regarding parent-time dispute

Travel to and from hearing regarding Temporary Orders

Attend Trial

The nice thing about this type of billing is you know exactly every task your lawyer has completed on your case, and the amount of time a particular task took.

The billable hour -- block billing

Some attorneys, by contrast, use what is called use block billing. This means they smash together a whole bunch of activities in to one paragraph (usually all stuff done on the same day) and then provide a total time spent on everything.

Block billing might look something like this:

Receive and review and prepare correspondences from and to client regarding alimony, strategize regarding child support calculations, prepare Temporary Orders, teleconference with opposing counsel regarding parent-time issues

Personally, I'm not a fan of block billing because it makes it impossible to tell what time was spent on which activity. In other words, it makes it harder for the client to evaluate how efficient the work being done on their case is. (And, to be honest, that might kind of be the whole point of block billing.)

Flat fees

Sometimes, lawyers charge a flat fee for their services. When attorneys accept flat fees, they normally don't send out invoices because the fee has already been paid, so there is not much need to give a play-by-play on all the work done on the case.

This lack of tracking time is a major reason some attorneys accept flat fees. Honestly, keeping track of every phone call and email is a pain, and some find it liberating not to track that sort of thing.

However, some flat-fee attorneys will send out invoices to let the client know exactly what work has been done. If they do this, the invoice will come in the form of either line-item billing or block billing as described above.

(A quick word on flat fees. Clients tend to like flat fees because it gives them certainty about what they will spend on a case. In reality, flat fees are a two-edged sword. They do provide certainty. However, since all the money for a flat-fee case is paid upfront, the incentive created for the attorney is to do as little work as possible on the case because the attorney has already received all the money. Now, I know many attorneys who accept flat fees, and many of them go above and beyond and do stellar work. This is just something to keep in mind when deciding what type of fee structure to choose.)

Additional thoughts

Couple things to keep in mind:

1. Your attorney will bill you for emails and phone calls. Communication is a major component of any client's bill. 

(Money saving tip regarding emails and calls: minimize the number of emails and calls by thinking of multiple questions to ask at the same time. Asking one question per email in a series of lots of emails will costs you more.)

2. If you don't know what something is on a bill, ask. Your attorney should be able to easily (and willingly) explain any time entry.

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