On Billable Narratives

by F.

Having just finished my first full week of practicing law in a year, I have (shockingly) retained the enthusiasm I felt on my first day, about which I blogged last week. Even billing time hasn’t bothered me, though as the pressure goes up, billing time gets more and more difficult, as you switch between 17 different matters (read: panicked clients) every hour.

One thing struck me, though. I was entering some time into our electronic billing system and realized that I had no idea what the actual bill to the client was going to look like. The time-entry screen (this is a Windows app) was cut up into little panes, one of which was “Narrative Description”—the part where you say what you actually did. For instance “Conference with F. Tinkleman regarding plot to destabilize financial markets; memo to file re same.”

When I was an in-house attorney, the narrative was the second most important part of the bill. (The first was the fee.) I would look at the fee, then look at the narrative, and think, “Is that a good deal?” If so, I would press the “accept” button and accept the bill. If not, I would get pissed off, throw a Dry-Erase marker across the room, fulminate at my computer screen…and then press the “accept” button and accept the bill.

What makes a good narrative? Again, from the in-house perspective, it’s simple: a lot of words. In fact, I think I could probably come up with a ratio of words to fees that would predict client satisfaction. The number of words per dollar should be high. If I got a bill that said, “Redraft contract,” and the bill amount was $10,000, I would think, “What? $10,000 just to do a redraft?” But if I got a bill that had 300 words describing the various clauses that were fixed, the conversations the lawyer had with the other side, how he or she read a long e-mail thread, and so on, I would think, “Wow. That’s a lot of work. A lot of really tedious work, in fact. $10,000 is a small price to pay not to have to do all that crap myself.” Then I would hit the “accept” button.