Can You Bill Clients in 15 Minute Increments? Wyoming Court Says Yes
A recent decision of the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld a law firm's billing practice of using 15 minute increments. The court held that barring evidence of abusive practices, so long as the billing increment is reasonable and not excessive, it's all good.
However, before those attorneys that bill to the tenth of the hour consider a change, it may be worth noting that doing so may actually require more work when it comes to time-keeping. As the Wisconsin high court explained, their holding was supported by evidence from the law firm that they often didn't bill for short tasks. Also, the firm did group multiple short tasks into the same increment, rather than billing short tasks as separate billing increments.
Don't Abuse Your Billing Increment
The most significant factors the court and state bar attorney fee panel relied upon were the facts that the law firm had used the same billing practices for the same client for close to 100 cases over a 15 plus year stretch of time, and that there was no evidence of abusive practices. Notably, the firm actually had the rather rare policy of rounding their time down and squashing time for de minimis tasks.
As the American Bar Association explains, minimum time increments "can lead to inflated and unreasonable fees." The ABA further noted that many courts have found the quarter-hour billing increment to be inherently suspect. After all, if an attorney that bills in 15 minute increments receives four calls that are each a minute, and each on a different case, that attorney could end up billing an hour of time for less than five minutes of work.
Inference Alone Not Enough
During the fee dispute between the Wisconsin firm and its longtime client, the state bar fee panel did actually reduce the law firm's fees. However, the reductions were not related to the billing increment used. Rather, due to the absence of a fee agreement, interest and some costs were cut. Also, there was one instance of double billing identified, as well as some paralegal fees that should never have been charged to the client due to the work being clerical in nature. Lastly, the fees for two motions that the panel found only benefited the law firm were removed.
When it came to the dispute over the billing increment however, the state court, and state bar panel, both found that the client had only presented expert testimony that the quarter hour increment created an inference of billing abuse. The court noted that the inference testimony alone was not enough, particularly given that the law firm presented material evidence to show their billing increment was not abused.
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