Though it may seem straightforward and clerical, the billing process is one of the most challenging — and simultaneously vital — administrative tasks; its accuracy impacts the overall financial health of a firm. Billing ideally functions as the operational engine that brings money in, but it remains a pain point for many firms. In fact, law firm billing has become an even more difficult and complex process in recent years due to a variety of internal and external factors, including outside counsel guidelines (OCGs) and e-billing.
This year, Aderant’s annual Law Firm Leader Survey on Outside Counsel Guidelines (OCGs) uncovered a concerning trend of law firm billing departments operating under tremendous strain. The 2021 survey respondents were primarily U.S.-based finance, billing and administrative professionals whose employers ranged from boutique firms to firms with 500-plus lawyers.
Most survey respondents cited the same overwhelming concern: increasingly complex and numerous OCGs. Compared to the 2019 survey results, firms saw a significant uptick in client-provided billing guidelines, or OCGs, throughout 2020 and 2021. Nearly half of the firms represented in the 2021 survey said they received 10 to 50 OCGs from January 2020 through March 2021, while 35% reported that they had received 50 or more.
The survey results indicated that the heavy stream of new and updated OCGs is overwhelming law firm billing departments. Half of 2021 survey respondents admitted that their current staff was not sufficient to handle the increased workload. Overall, many firms reported what were tantamount to crisis conditions as OCGs continued to inundate them.
CLIENT COMMUNICATION ROADBLOCK
The impact of the OCG overload phenomenon is not limited to the billing department, as staff noticed an additional strain on client relations and communication. Firms noted that clients were changing rules and billing guidelines without proper notification, leaving nearly two-thirds of them to push back on client guidelines.
A significant 37% of firms indicated that OCGs were making client communications more difficult. Survey respondents also said that some clients were using OCGs as a method to delay payment, causing firms to lose revenue while they tried to comply.
Based on the results of the 2021 OCG survey, what follows is a list of six practices that legal administrators and billing professionals can implement to manage OCGs, while improving billing operations:
1. INCREASE AWARENESS OF BILLING GUIDELINES
Lawyers are primarily responsible for submitting the time and expense entries used by billing departments to generate client invoices. If a lawyer’s time entries are not compliant with the client’s OCGs, the client will likely take issue with the invoice content.
The 2021 survey showed an informational disconnect regarding OCGs between timekeepers and their billing departments. Only a minority of firms (32%), were confident that more than half of their lawyers knew the client-provided guidelines for their matters. Providing training for timekeepers to ensure a working knowledge of relevant OCGs can help remedy this disconnect. When lawyers know the OCGs applicable to their clients and matters, their time and expense entries are more compliant, making the billing department’s job much easier and reducing rejections, write-offs and client dissatisfaction.
2. ENCOURAGE PRECISE, COMPREHENSIVE TIME AND EXPENSE ENTRIES
This year’s survey found that law firms using e-billing cited “vague descriptions” as the primary factor in billing rejections and appeals. The more specific and clear work descriptions are, the better chance they have of being paid promptly without disputes from clients.
“The impact of the OCG overload phenomenon is not limited to the billing department, as staff noticed an additional strain on client relations and communication. Firms noted that clients were changing rules and billing guidelines without proper notification, leaving nearly two-thirds of them to push back on client guidelines.”
For example, if a lawyer is inputting time for travel, it’s not sufficient to merely say “traveling for two hours.” To substantiate the bill and increase the chance of compliance with client-provided guidelines, exact details about the time the trip began and ended along with relevant receipts, tickets and other documentation should be included with the entry.
3. SELECT THE APPROPRIATE STAFF FOR EACH MATTER
Understandably, clients often contest charges for multiple lawyers completing the same task or clerical tasks being billed at lawyer-level rates. A firm’s administrative staff can prevent these issues by tailoring each team of lawyers and staff to the individual needs of every matter. Not only will this help firms avoid rejections and reductions, but clients will also appreciate the effort to fairly bill them.
4. LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY TO IMPROVE BILLING, COMPLIANCE AND VISIBILITY
When asked what they needed to improve OCG compliance within billing at their firms, respondents ranked “better technology” first and “more law firm visibility into what the corporate legal department really wants” second.
Several types of technological resources can be leveraged to help firms deal with OCGs more effectively, while also gaining greater visibility into client needs. Available technologies include e-billing, billing enforcement/compliance tech, collaboration portals, time entry and data intelligence offerings that benchmark billing performance. With the growing number of OCGs, firms must make the most of available technology to streamline revenue realization and gain greater insight into billing performance.
5. DEVELOP A PROCESS FOR UPDATING EXISTING OCGs AND IMPLEMENTING NEW ONES
The 2021 survey found that most firms (90%) already had a process in place to review, analyze and document OCGs as new rules came into the firm. However, the figure dropped to 81% when firms were asked if they had a process to review, analyze and document updates to existing guidelines.
Since clients frequently reform their existing guidelines and occasionally neglect to notify counsel of those changes, firms are well-served to regularly monitor revisions to current guidelines. In doing so, the latest rules will be immediately reflected in the next billing cycle.
6. ENSURE CLIENT SATISFACTION WITH ACCURATE BILLING AND EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION
Billing provides a monthly opportunity for firms to reinforce good client relationships and promptly resolve any conflicts or areas of dissatisfaction. Corporate clients are most likely using technology to evaluate their outside counsel firms, benchmarking for value and performance. Improved law firm billing accuracy and compliance with the client’s billing guidelines can help improve client satisfaction and ideally lead to more business.
By clearly communicating with clients about billing and strictly adhering to their guidelines, firms can create a more positive, seamless and rewarding experience for the client. Clients receiving comprehensive bills in compliance with their rules are more likely to submit payment without requests for discounts, reductions and write-offs, thereby reducing the length of a firm’s invoice to payment cycle.
THE TIME TO ADDRESS IS NOW
OCGs are not going away, and, as with anything else, ignoring the problem is a short-lived solution. If anything, client-provided guidelines are trending upward and becoming a phenomenon too large to ignore even momentarily.
Legal organizations that tackle OCG compliance head-on will have an advantage over others who are slow to act. While an increased understanding of the rules amongst timekeepers is a crucial first step toward compliance, focusing on right-size staffing and proper technology resourcing is also extraordinarily helpful. Above all, listening to the client’s needs and promptly addressing them is the surest way to retain existing clients and acquire new ones.
As the orchestrator within the firm, you are primed to organize their internal practices in ways that ensure accurate billing, client satisfaction and optimized revenue. As such, the leadership of legal administrators is crucial to the safeguarding of each firm’s financial health.