THE DOUBLE BILLING DILEMMA
March 17, 2022
Reading time: 3 minutes
The scene: Three attorneys from the same large, Philadelphia-based law firm are traveling on the train from Philadelphia to New York to attend a hearing for Client A. All three attorneys are billing their travel to Client A and have turned on their laptop computers. Attorney 1 is working on his oral argument for Client A’s hearing. Attorney 2 is working on a brief for another client, Client B. Attorney 3 is watching Spiderman 2 and dozing in and out of sleep with a soda and a bag of chips close by. Which of these attorneys is the most “productive” biller?
The answer is all three attorneys are equally productive because each is prohibited from “double billing.” Double billing is the act of charging more than one client for services that are rendered at the same time, i.e., generating an hour of billing for Client A and an hour of billing for Client B during the same single hour. According to most commentators, double billing is unethical and violates two of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Rule 8.4, which prohibits dishonesty, and Rule 1.5, which prohibits a lawyer from charging an unreasonable fee. Most commentators agree that if an attorney completes work for more than one client at the same time, the attorney should bill only one client and the other clients should benefit from the attorney’s efficiency for free.
In the scenario above, Attorney 1 is prohibited from billing Client A twice in the same hour—once for traveling and again for working on the oral argument during that travel time. Attorney 2 cannot bill Client B if he is already billing that hour to Client A.
These are classic examples of double billing and common dilemmas for associates who travel frequently. Associates are charged with deciding which client to bill and which to essentially give free services—something that might not sit well with partners and superiors. This can be a challenging responsibility for young associates. In addition, although most new associates are highly industrious and likely to pull out work on a train instead of watch laptop movies, they are not provided much motivation when Attorney 3, who is lounging and watching action movies, is, under the ABA Model Rules, not only following the rules but equally as productive in generating hourly fees as his apparently more industrious associates.
So how do associates decide whom to benefit with free labor? The best advice for new associates is the same advice that solves 90 percent of other first-year problems: ask someone. Associates should never think that billing is too small an issue to bring to a partner’s attention. After all, billing is the lifeblood of firms and the issue that partners are constantly addressing. Partners will be happy to guide you on billing issues and will appreciate that you care about them. Almost all partners dread having to review submitted bills and reconstruct their associates’ work before they can submit these crucial bills to clients each month. Anything new associates can do to lessen this burden on partners is likely to be appreciated and welcomed.
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