Happy New Year and Beware of Surprises in 4th Quarter Bills

As your review January bills from outside counsel which include time billed during the 4th quarter of 2013, you may note two things.  One is a flurry of billed for activity as attorneys and paralegals scramble to get in all the billable hours they can so they can to meet firm goals for yearly minimum billing requirements or to determine firm bonuses.

The other thing you may note is the presence of some billers who have not previously billed in the file who are also scrambling to get in as many billable hours as they can before year’s end.  They have literally gone around the office begging others for work to do in order to meet the firm’s minimum billing requirements or to qualify for a bonus.

In the parlance of bill reviewing, these drop-in billers are called “transient billers.” They are attorneys and paralegals who mysteriously drop into a case, do a little work, and then mysteriously drop out of the case.  While mainly found in year end bills, transient billers can also found throughout the year as partners are pressured by firm management to keep idle staff busy.

The presence of any transient billers in a case at any time should be of concern as the use of transient billers is a very inefficient practice.  It invariably winds up costing extra money or delays getting work done in a timely fashion.  It can cost extra money for transient billers who have to spend time to “get up to speed” on the file before carrying out an assignment.   Also breaking down discrete assignments (e.g., a research project or preparation of brief) among too many people can lead to additional costs and overlap in work as well as delays in getting the project done.

Of course, vacations, illnesses, or resignations mean that different people may show up as a biller in the file from time to time.  However, such substitutions should be kept to a minimum and should not be for the convenience of the firm (e.g., approved vacations or assigned staff working on other client files).  But if the use of substitute staff is occasionally warranted such as due to increased workload or need for additional expertise, you should insist that the same substitute staff be used wherever possible.

If you do see evidence of transient billers in a file, you should determine the exact reason.  If the presence of additional staff cannot be justified or is done for the convenience of the firm, the billing partner should be asked to write down any additional charges applicable to using the new biller.  You should also insist that they discontinue assigning new billers to your files absent some true emergency situation or by your request.

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