Hourly rate billing is one of the truly unpleasant aspects of the lawyer-client relationship, for both the client and the lawyer. Personally, I’m trying to shift to mostly flat rate billing, but that isn’t a perfect solution either.

Clients hate hourly rate billing because it’s unpredictable. Lawyers hate it because clients always way underestimate how much time it takes to do things. That’s natural, because clients only see the end product. The client is thinking (and sometimes saying) “why am I getting billed six hours for a five page filing — I could write 5 pages in an hour on a cell phone keypad with one thumb!.” The client doesn’t see all the behind-the-scenes work that went into those five pages — the research, thinking, looking things up, going down false trails, reading 20 pages of fine print to find the relevant passage, etc. So clients always feel as though they’re being overcharged, and lawyers always feel under pressure to cut corners to keep the bill down.

I’ve found that one thing that helps a lot is not charging for client phone calls. Why? Several reasons:

  1. It sends the message that I’m focused on the work, not on dinging the hourly rate pinball machine over and over for 0.2 or 0.3 hours per ding.
  2. Many of my clients are personal friends — if not at the beginning, then eventually. I want my friends to be clear that they can call me, as a friend, without wondering if the clock is running.
  3. I want to encourage clients to brainstorm and explore possibilities and strategies. Most clients won’t do that if the clock is running — if they know they’re being billed, it’s strictly business, stay on topic.
  4. Billing phone calls is just too much bookkeeping for the small amounts of time involved — not worth the hassle or the negative karma.
  5. It’s an incentive to try to get clients to phone instead of emailing. I think clients often have the misconception that it takes less time to answer a ‘quick’ email question than to discuss the question on the phone. Definitely not true. If you phone with a question, I can quickly narrow in on what it is that you really want to know. We can have a dialog. If you email a question, I have to try to anticipate all the possible exceptions and alternatives, and the answer to a one sentence question can turn into a two page essay, which might still be misleading if there are some facts about your situation that I’m not aware of. So instead a ten minute phone call, it might take an hour to compose a careful written answer that covers all the possible permutations of the question.
  6. With a phone call, I can be sure we’re communicating, that what you think you said and what I think you said are the same thing. With emails, there’s no opportunity for that. If I’m telling you something that you really need to know about — an upcoming deadline, for example — if I tell you on the phone I can be sure that you heard it. Busy people tend to just ‘skim’ emails, and it’s easy miss things that are important. (I’ve learned to put important things like deadline reminders in separate emails by themselves, but even that doesn’t always work with busy clients who get a lot of emails.)

In short, I want to encourage clients to pick up the phone, and one of the best ways to do that is to not punish them for doing it.




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