All attorneys have an ethical obligation to provide a “sufficient explanation” in their billing entries. See ABA Formal Op. 93-370 (1993) at p. 3 (attorney must provide a “sufficient explanation in the statement so that the client may reasonably be expected to understand what fees and other charges the client is actually being billed”). This ethical obligation to provide sufficient explanations of billing entries is a part of an attorney’s ethical duty as found in RPC 1.4(b) (“A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”).
Without sufficiently explained entries, courts have held that it is impossible for any fee bill to be reviewed for reasonableness. See Daniel Orme v. Burlington Coat Factory of Oregon, LLC, 2010 WL 1838740 (D. Or. 2010)(attorney “must provide enough detail for the court to determine whether the time spent on a task was reasonable.”). As a result, courts are uniform in denying payment for legal work that is not sufficiently explained. See Grievson v. Rochester Psychiatric Center, 2010 WL 3894983 at *8 (W.D.N.Y. 2010)(“Individual entries that include only vague and generic descriptions of the work performed do not provide an adequate basis upon which to evaluate the reasonableness of the time spent.”).
Since the providing a sufficient explanation of billing entries may mean the difference in getting paid or not, an attorney rightly may ask what exactly constitutes a “sufficient explanation?” Or stated another way, how much detail should be provided in a billing entry?
The answer to the question of the level of sufficient detail required is easy. It is whatever the client thinks is a sufficiently detailed explanation. See Delgado v. Mak, No. 06-C-3757, 2009 WL 211862, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 29, 2009) (“The standard for evaluating the amount of itemization and detail in time entries in a fee petition . . . appears to be based on the market — that is, the level of detail paying clients find satisfactory.”). Also see The ABA Lawyer Task Force on Lawyer Business Ethics(1996) (“Each invoice should clearly identify the legal services provided in such specificity as the client requests.”).
Some clients are sophisticated consumers of legal services and may require a lot less detail. But an individual who may never have used a lawyer before may require a lot of detail.
In the category of sophisticated consumers of legal services are insurers and many large corporations. These companies typically have “billing guidelines” that set out among other things what constitutes a “sufficient explanation” in billing entries. That, of course, helps a lot – but only if the attorney actually reads the guidelines. But in addition to reading the guidelines, a prudent attorney will to go over this point with the client’s contact to ensure that there is a complete understanding of the level of detail that is expected from the client. This is especially important to do if the company uses an “e-billing” program to scrutinize legal bills.
On the other hand, most all individual clients (including most smaller companies) do not have billing guidelines and may not even be able to articulate a cogent answer if asked a question about the level of detail the client wishes to see in the attorney’s invoices. This is why in CLE seminars I have provided to attorneys and paralegals on the ethics of legal billing I always suggest that after the first invoice is sent out in a matter to a new client to call (not email) the client and go over the bill with the client. In addition to making sure the client does not have any questions on any of the current billing entries, find out if the client believes the level of detail provided in those current billing entries is sufficient.
If there is any one thing that attorneys can do to ensure that legal bills are promptly paid or avoid having clients contact someone like me because the clients cannot understand their legal bills, it is to remember to provide a sufficient explanation in all billing entries. And the only way an attorney can know is she is providing a sufficient explanation of billed for tasks is to ask the client.