Billable Hours, Cheapness, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

Do You Build Invoices Or Relationships?

Keith Lee

It’s always interesting to have conversations with clients who have gone through multiple lawyers. Not the sort of clients who have gone lawyer shopping in the past, bouncing around looking for the lowest price, but rather the client who has had a relationship with a lawyer in the past and has decided to break away from that lawyer due to poor performance or bad customer service. Listening to clients who have severed relationships with other lawyers offers a glimpse into what is going on in the mind of clients and what they expect from the legal services they obtain.

One of the most egregious things I’ve heard lately from a client has to do with a couple of bottles of water….

At a meeting with her previous lawyers, the client had been sitting in on a meeting for a couple of hours and the firm provided her with a couple of bottles of water over the course of the meeting. A few weeks later when she got her bill, it included every single bit of work that could possibly be charged to her — every email, quick telephone calls that lasted three minutes — AND a charge for two bottles of water. She was beyond furious. Offering someone something to drink is a simple gesture that is not a business expense. It’s common courtesy that cuts across cultures and provides an immediate connection between lawyer and client. It’s the type of thing you do when you welcome someone into your home. To turn around and bill the cost of a bottle of water to a client is insane.

Not every single little thing you do for a client needs to fall under the spectrum of the billable hour. It’s okay to take a quick phone call from a client and not bill them for it. Sure, if they call and you have a substantive fifteen-minute conversation, charge them for it. But if they want to ask a quick question, just to touch base about a matter, it’s okay to let it go. A couple weeks ago I had a client call and ask me about a contract that we had drafted for them. He wanted to know if it precluded a the party on the other side of the contract from doing a certain sort of work. I told him I would look over it and get back to him. Between the phone call and reviewing the contract, probably half an hour went by. I didn’t bill him for it.

He’s a good client. We do lots of work for him. I want him to feel comfortable that he can contact me whenever he wants and not be nickel-and-dimed to death. I see him out at social functions and industry-related events. I don’t want him to think that our every interaction is a transaction. I want him to feel like we have a relationship. That it’s okay for us to just hop on the phone and chat for awhile. Plus, it’s actually valuable for us to have that type of relationship. Multiple clients have told me they were scared to call their previous lawyers because they were getting billed to death for every single little phone call. It made them not want to call their lawyer — but this led to them not calling their lawyer when they should have. Something that might have been resolved with a quick phone call spiraled out into a gargantuan mess that resulted in the client taking on dozens of hours in legal fees. All because the client didn’t feel comfortable in picking up the phone and having a quick chat with their lawyer.

Recently, after completing a project for a different client, I told them we went over our proposed budget by three to four hours but we would eat the cost. I wanted to stay within the budget that we had projected for them. The client’s response was: “Keith, are you sure you’re a lawyer?” I was dismayed and pleased by the client’s response — dismayed that this is the sort of reputation that lawyers have cultivated over the years, but pleased that our firm has bucked this trend. It’s up to you what type of lawyer you want to be: one who falls into the tropes and clichés of lawyers that are always billing time, or one who is building genuine relationships with clients.

It’s your decision.

Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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