Expert Article Library

Timekeeping Strategies That Will Improve Your Bottom Line

By Beryl Vaughan / ForensicExpertPro.com

 

Time is money. Getting paid for your work begins with documenting your time. Attorneys pay experts when they agree the charges are reasonable. Recording your time with enough detail to support that very reasonable bill is easy, done right. Detailed recordkeeping has practical benefits for you and your client. Inadequate detail can have serious legal consequences for you and your client. Doing it right builds your client relationship by underlining transparency and integrity—the foundation of repeat business and referrals. Detailed, logical time entries can help you:

·         Proactively minimize hassles and disputes with your clients.  The more detail you provide, the easier it is for your clients to conclude your invoice is accurate and payment reasonable. The least desirable outcome is the client’s perception they have been overcharged. Even if you explain the invoice to the client’s satisfaction, the interaction can subtly poison the client relationship. Attorneys are more likely to remember the dispute more readily than the resolution. Everything you can do to avoid this result, serves your success.

·         Avoid negative legal consequences that can result from work that wasn’t carefully tracked.  When testifying, a smart attorney will ask you what you charged for your services. If juries hear a lump sum, absent a detailed invoice, they may be, and often are, offended by what seems an opportunistic number. Opposing counsel is counting on that. On cross examination, the justification of your fees can soften that blow. Another benefit is you may be asked if you read a certain document when rendering your opinion. A record resolves the question easily. Even if you don’t charge for reviewing a document, because it required barely a scan, record it and mark the charges as “0.”

·         If the prevailing party paid your fees, they may have the right to seek recovery.  Under certain circumstances, a prevailing party may be entitled to recover reasonable expert witness fees. (Check your State’s Rules of Civil Procedure; in California a “998” [CCP 998] identifies when recovery of expert fees is allowed.) The judge will determine what is fair and reasonable, beginning with your detailed invoices.

·         Defend your work if it’s challenged.  Detailed timekeeping is the best defense against a charge you are working on contingency or flat fee: i.e. giving a biased opinion because otherwise you won’t get paid. This is the opposite of the role of an expert witness, which is to provide an objective opinion that disregards the needs of one party over another.

Don’t

·         Lump similar tasks into a single entry.  Work is rarely done in one unbroken sitting, and tasks are unique. Reviewing a deposition may take more time than reading an entire box of phone bills. Some documents are more germane to your field of expertise. Your work may cover the course of many days, broken up by the demands of other clients. Each reviewed document, each draft of a report, each revision responsive to new data, are billable events to reflect on your invoice.

·         Charge for chit chat.  Transparency is your friend. When you spend time talking about non-case related topics, tell the attorney you aren’t charging for that time, in no uncertain terms. State what you are billing and that you won’t, of course, be billing for time spent talking about your kids.

Do

·         Track your work in real time.  Do the task, write it down (sample form below). If that’s not practical, update your time on a daily basis. It’s very hard to recreate a time record after several busy days. Watch the clock—it’s never a bad idea to note “3:15-4 pm,” even on a post-it or during a phone call. When you add it to your timesheet, you’ll have less to remember.

·         Line item your work.  Every task gets a line on your time-tracking record. There’s often a tendency to round up or down, like calling 45 minutes an hour, because you don’t really remember when you started. Frankly, a round number suggests either you’re overcharging—a fast way to ruin your credibility with the attorney. If a round number actually reflects rounding down, –or undercharging, get credit for your professional courtesy of a write-off. The sample timesheet below shows one way this can work.

·         Let your fee schedule guide you.  Note the billable rate for the specific work done, to avoid underbilling. Enter any information defined on your fee schedule. For example, state the date and reason for a cancellation fee. If travel is door to door, state the points of origination and destination, as well as any kinks in the original estimate—like an unexpected layover. Accurately note shifts in billing rates. You probably charge a lower fee for travel, or a higher fee for testimony.

·         Use language that speaks to the legal nature of your work. Attorneys have to decode your invoice, not colleagues in your profession. “Terms of art” that aren’t self-evident should be clarified or not used at all. One mistake made by doctors is to refer to medical records as “charts.” A chart is the medical record kept by a treating physician. Another common error is to refer to an examinee as a patient. A litigant is not a patient and the term patient comes with a range of HIPAA issues. Similarly, a forensic accountant should not assume statistical or actuarial terms are understood by attorneys. The better the attorney understands you, the more likely they are to pay you.

·         Keep your timesheets.  Don’t throw them away. Some day you may have to audit your invoices—for a case or for the IRS. Either way, you need a written record beyond invoices. An added benefit is it provides you with information for the future, such as making an estimate for similar work.

 

Now that you’re ready to up your timekeeping game, what are some easy tools and solutions to help you track your work? Timekeeping software exists but isn’t always convenient when you’re away from the office. Scribbles on a yellow pad are convenient, right up to the point when you can’t find the page or can’t figure out what you meant in your notes. 

 

Consider making your own timesheet. You can design a simple form in MSWord or Excel. A ruler and a pencil is the low-tech solution. Print out pages for a day, week or month, or fill them out on your computer. There are 5 important columns (plus what’s useful internally). 

 

a)      The date the service was provided.

b)      The name of the client.

c)      A description of the service: detail, detail, detail! Break those task-by-task entries up as much as possible. Feel free to enter 20 lines on a single day that made up 3 hours of work if you think it might be relevant.

d)      The amount of time spent on the line item task. When your client gets your invoice, you could waste time arguing about whether 5 hours of “records review” is accurate, but not if you’ve billed 2 hours for reviewing bank statements and 3 hours for reviewing another expert’s report.

e)      Optional: The total charge for the task (i.e. you note the rate for that client, applied to the time spent, and then the total on that line item). It’s not necessary, but serves as a backup for bookkeeping. This is especially important if you charge different rates for different clients, or have many different rates depending on the task. 

f)       Optional: Column(s) that help your bookkeeping internally. For example, a column to check mark when the item has been billed. In a busy practice, it’s easy to miss a charge when preparing an invoice and helpful to be able to capture it later.

 

What’s the best way to handle a write-off or a mark-down? If you write-off time or mark down your rate as a gesture of goodwill, get credit for giving your client a break. Note the entry as you do it, note how much time you spent, and that you are not charging for that time as a “courtesy discount.” It has goodwill benefits for your client relationship and, ultimately, professional reputation.

 

Example of one kind of timesheet:

Date

Client

Description

Hours spent

Rate “x”

Total

Billed

1/1/01

Doe

Read police report dated 1/1/00

.2

$____

[.2x]

P

1/1/01

Doe

Review 2015 utility bills (no charge)

.2

0

0

 

1/1/01

Doe

Call with attorney Smith (additional .2 not charged)

.4

$____

[.4x]

 

3/1/01

Doe

Emails (3) to counsel re discovery and deposition

.2

$____

 .2x

 

3/2/01

Smith

Travel to meeting with counsel [note miles door to door]

1.2

[Travel Rate “z”]

[1.2z]

 

 

Beryl Vaughan has worked in law and forensic psychiatry in practice development and case management. She is a marketing and small business consultant to expert witnesses and attorneys. She works primarily with forensic psychiatrists and psychologists.  It is her experience that everyone wants to be paid for the work they do and hopes this article is helpful. More about her can be found at ForensicExpertPro.com and she can be reached directly at beryl@forensicexpertpro.com