First, a story. Then, my point.
(If I promise a point at the end, maybe you’ll persevere through the story.)
When I was a partner at a large law firm, sending out bills, I took the job seriously. I sat in a coffee shop one Sunday afternoon each month and went through every !*@!! time entry in every bill to be sure that (1) I could understand what task the lawyer had performed and (2) the time spent was not disproportionate to the work performed. Only then would I approve the bill.
Editing bills is like torture. In fact, strike the “like.” This is torture. At the end of three or four hours of editing bills, you’re ready to jam toothpicks into your eyes. So I took a lesson from Tom Sawyer and whitewashing fences: I conned my teenage son into thinking that editing bills was a very important job. He bit! (Other than falling for this, the kid is actually pretty smart.) During Jeremy’s sophomore through senior years of high school, he and I did some father-son bonding on the third Sunday of every month at the local coffee shop. I bought the kid a caramel frappuccino (“venti” if we were doing north of 500 grand in bills; otherwise, grande; always with whipped cream). He took half the stack of bills; I took the other half; we edited. (Stay calm. I didn’t charge clients even for my own time spent doing this, let alone the kid’s. This was on the up and up.)
What did we do?
First, my firm’s (and, I now know, most firms’) computerized billing system spits out stupid phrases joined by a slash. So I told Jeremy that, for example, “review/analysis of” was wrong. We either reviewed or analyzed, but there was no reason to inflict on a client the “review/analysis of” abomination. Jeremy naturally asked whether we should delete “review” or “analysis.” If there’s a fair choice, I told the kid, delete “review”‘ if I were a client, I’d rather pay for a lawyer “analyzing” something and not merely “reviewing” it.
One of my junior partners habitually submitted his time sheets late, so Jeremy and I would be plowing through DXR’s April time while we were sitting in the coffee shop at Borders on a September afternoon. Jeremy asked what he should do about the late time. I told him to leave it in there, and we’d see if the client would pay.
But Jeremy exacted his youthful revenge: “DXR is an idiot. He always submits his time late. From now on, he’s not going to ‘analyze’ anything. He’s too stupid to do anything more than ‘review.’” (Jeremy’s pretty tough, although he’s no Steven Pesner.)
I didn’t object to this decision. After all, I was paying Jeremy only a frappuccino, so I figured he was entitled to some vindictive pleasure. And it wasn’t entirely clear to me that his new rule was wrong. For three years, dozens of lawyers “analyzed” stuff, but DXR only “reviewed.”
Other fathers play catch with their sons, or go fishing, or play golf. Not me; I breed ‘em a little weird. So what else did Jeremy and I do at the coffee shop, for father-son bonding?
We deleted prepositional phrases. “Analysis of opening brief” is bad; “analyze opening brief” is good. We chose better verbs: “Prepare summary of deposition of Smith” is bad; “summarize Smith deposition” is good.
We made sure we could understand what we were reading. For example, Jeremy asked what he should do when he encountered a time entry showing “7.5 hours” for “MIL.” Honest to God: 7.5 hours for “MIL.” I studied the preceding and following time entries, looked at the work other lawyers were doing on the same days, thought about the tasks we’d undertaken the previous month, and had a flash of inspiration: Motion in limine! Motion in limine! We edited: “Researching and drafting motion in limine to exclude evidence of fraud on the FDA.”
Some of my partners told me that I was nuts to personally review the bills I sent out, because that’s what billing assistants are for. But I’m not sure that billing assistants know if time spent is appropriate for the task, and I’m not sure that billing assistants fix prepositional phrases and prefer meaningful verbs. So I personally edited bills. (Or so everyone thought at the time. Now Jeremy’s secret is out.)
Was all this effort worthwhile? Who knows? Maybe it was gratuitous self-torture, and that’s why I went in-house. Or maybe someone noticed. Maybe St. Peter will reward me at the Pearly Gates. (“Herrmann, you idiot! You wasted Sunday afternoons editing bills, when you could have been writing the great American novel or serving food at the soup kitchen?! No way you’re getting in here!”) I will say that, at one annual review of my law firm conducted by a client, we went through the checklist of items that the in-house lawyers were required to discuss with all outside counsel. We hit “bills,” and the in-house lawyer started laughing: “My God, bills! That’s not a problem with you guys. Your bills are great! You should see what we get from some of the other firms.”
So that was my satisfaction from all those wasted Sunday afternoons. Plus one other, entirely accidental thing: Jeremy can write. I’ve looked at a few of his college essays, and the kid almost never uses unnecessary prepositional phrases. He chooses his verbs intelligently. And he gets to the point.
I haven’t done a controlled study of this, but I’m pretty sure that three hours per month spent reviewing and editing sentence fragments that are connected by semi-colons is one way to teach writing.
That’s the story; now the point. (You knew I’d get there eventually.)
I now review bills that exceed a certain dollar limit before my current employer pays them. And what do I see?
I guess this is not really a point, after all, but more another story. (So I lied. Sue me.)
I have, over the course of the last months, repeatedly been subjected to bills that seek good money for “attention/consideration/review of” assorted documents, because of those damned computerized billing systems. I have been asked to pay a half hour’s fee based on the time entry (and I quote in its entirety): “11KBW.” (You know this is true; I couldn’t possibly be making it up.) After an exchange of e-mails, I learned that 11KBW is an abbreviation of the address of local counsel, and national counsel had called a lawyer at that address. I was convinced, and we paid.
Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked to pay .2 hours for (and again I quote in full): “E to HJ.” Gimme a break: “E to HJ.” I’m not even asking this time around. We’ve got corporate crises up in the C-suites and opposing counsel busting our chops in courts around the world. “E to HJ” just ain’t getting paid.
Put yourself in my shoes. I may know next to nothing about the case in which you’re recording time. I don’t know your personal shorthand, which may or may not make sense even to folks very close to the case. And I’ve got a whole lot of better things to do than to send e-mails to my colleagues halfway around the world asking them to call you to figure out if we can have the privilege of paying you a few more bucks.
Insist that your colleagues make comprehensible time entries. Review bills to be sure that the time spent fits the task. Edit the entries, if necessary, to make them intelligible (to a person of average intelligence who knows nothing about your case). And get rid of the unnecessary words, so I can review these godforsaken things quickly and easily.
If you think I’ve worked myself into a lather here, you may be right. But remember: Jeremy’s off to college now. I don’t have any help.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.
You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.