A Personalized Cover Letter Should Accompany Legal Bills

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Do you include a cover letter when you send out your monthly legal bills? Most of you do, I suspect. In my previous life as an in-house lawyer for more than a dozen years, I reviewed more outside legal bills than I care to remember. Certain things stick out.

The more important portion of  legal bills, of course, are the page with the “almighty” time entries and descriptions. However, I also clearly remember the attached cover letter. They all said the same thing: “Enclosed, please find.”  What a waste of a valuable opportunity.

Personalize Your Cover Letter

Consider sending out your legal bills with a personalized cover letter.  Now, before you start whining about yet another “soft skill” client service suggestion that seems on its surface to be a complete waste of time, please hear me out. You will soon see that this is time well spent.

Communicate Your Value in Your Cover Letter

The first reason for a personalized cover letter is to communicate to your client the value that you have provided during the past 30 days.

Clients don’t open bills thinking, “I can’t wait to pay my lawyers for all of the hard work they have done this past month.” In reality, a client perusing the time entries is more likely to think, “They spent five hours doing that? What’s that all about?”

In isolation, time entries/descriptions never scream value. Instead, they communicate tasks, usually with very little context. Sure, you spent two hours reviewing discovery documents or six hours preparing for the deposition of the plaintiff or four hours drafting and revising the purchase agreement — but what did you accomplish? Mere numbers show that you spent time working on behalf of your client, but nothing about how that time furthered the client’s objectives. Why not directly tell them in a cover letter?

Make It Easy

Yes, I know that some of your clients can connect the dots from the entries and understand what you are trying to accomplish. But if your time-entry sheets run multiple pages, the way that some of the litigation files that I used to manage did, I know that I would have appreciated a concise summary of what was done — and why it was done.

Drafting a cover letter should not be a time consuming exercise. We are talking about a paragraph, two at most. You’ve just enclosed a bill asking to be paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for your hard work. You can spare five minutes per client each month to explain why your work was worth it.  If you are fortunate enough to be mailing dozens of bills per month, you can provide the cover letter for your top 5-10 clients. Surely, you have time for that.

Express Your Gratitude in Your Cover Letter

The second reason to include a personalized cover letter with your legal bills is even more important.  This reason is to thank the client for the business being provided. At least every thirty days, take advantage of the opportunity to thank your clients and tell them that you appreciate their business. That’s what I do.  In this highly competitive marketplace, I want my clients to know that I am grateful for their business.

Sending out legal bills with a personalized cover letter can do more than simply tell your clients how much they owe. Use your legal bills to add value to the relationship.  Use them to regularly communicate your value and your appreciation.

(photo: Stack of envelopes/letters from Shutterstock)

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  • shg

    Because sophisticated corporate clients want to waste time reading vapid letters expressing rote gratitude? If there is something to say, that’s one thing. If there is nothing to say (besides thanks for the dough), they have nothing better to do than have their time wasted by a lawyer who is asking for payment?

    My experience (but then, I’m just a lawyer, not a marketer) is that clients appreciate lawyers who respect their time and intelligence. That is value. Insipid marketing is not appreciated.

    • If Roy is advocating a generic cover letter, then I agree with you. That’s likely to be as effective as the plastic “thank you” bags I get from the convenience store.

      I think he’s suggesting something a bit more personal, though. A letter reminding the client of what happened during the billing period and what’s in store for the next month or so. That’s something we ought to do, anyway, and I suppose a cover letter for the invoice is as good a time as any. Although you might as well call it good client communication as marketing.

      • shg

        See Roy’s letter below and tell me whether you think was worth your bandwidth:

        Thank you for providing the opportunity to provide legal services. I greatly appreciate it.

        I don’t know about you, but I was nearly moved to tears by the sentiment. But if you spend a little extra time to personalize it, perhaps adding “I really, truly greatly appreciate it,” it will change everything.

        • I definitely got something different out of his post than his example. The example I expected would have been more like this:

          Dear client:

          Enclosed is your invoice from the last month. As with the previous month, most of my time was spent working with you on your responses to multiple sets of discovery requests, and follow-up objections to your responses from Acme Co. Related to that, my paralegal spent a lot of time in your records department looking for documents.

          Next month, we will begin taking depositions of the Acme’s chief witnesses, although given the difficulty we have had with discovery thus far, I expect that to involve about the same amount of back-and-forth negotiation as we had during written discovery, and perhaps some motions to compel testimony. It will also include the travel costs, and the cost of hiring a court reporter for the depositions and obtaining a transcript of the deposition testimony. That generally runs to about $800 per day, and we anticipate about 3 full days of depositions at Acme’s headquarters in St. Louis, if all goes according to plan.

          Please note that, while I have included all the time we spent on your invoice, I did not charge you for any of my administrative emails and conversations with my associate, who did most of the work of preparing our discovery responses at his lower fee.

          If you have any questions, please call me at your convenience.

          Regards,

          Me

          Edit: It wouldn’t hurt to say “thank you” at the end of that letter.

          • shg

            That’s cheating. Nowhere did Roy say anything about writing a substantive letter with actual information.

            • “Sure, you spent two hours reviewing discovery documents or six hours preparing for the deposition of the plaintiff or four hours drafting and revising the purchase agreement — but what did you accomplish? Mere numbers show that you spent time working on behalf of your client, but nothing about how that time furthered the client’s objectives. Why not directly tell them in a cover letter?”

              I would say that “substantive” is (at the very least) implied by the above.

              • shg

                I, for one, think it’s very sweet how you are trying to salvage Roy’s honor.

          • I would also recommend not to bill the client for the cover letter.

            • You think?

              • See Andrew’s response below.

                • I guess it wasn’t as obvious (that we shouldn’t charge for a billing summary) as I thought.

                  • I never bill for Billing related stuff. It says so in my few agreements and in my bill cover letters. However, what Sam proposed is a substantive update on the case. Maybe it is just me, but by my inclination is always to inform the client of everything going on with the file and my clients would know all these things before they ever get a bill for the work I have done.

                    This is why so much of my work is on a flat fee basis so I don’t even have to think of these sorts of Billing issues.most.pdf the time

  • I would love to see a sample of this, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover letter explaining the value of the specific tasks performed before.

    • shg

      Excellent point. Perhaps Roy will share a shining example of a cover letter that add value.

  • Roy Ginsburg

    First, while I plead guilty to being a “marketer,” I have practiced law for almost 30 years and still practice on a part-time basis.

    Second, I find it hard to believe that a client would view a short note that expresses gratitude to be a waste of time. Quite frankly, I think it rude for a lawyer not to say “thank you.” When did simple manners become a nuisance to some?

    Finally, see below for an recent example. IMHO, it beats “Enclosed please find.” As you can see, it takes minutes to draft, as well as minutes to read.

    Attached is my invoice for May which totals $ ____. Time records can be found on the invoice. This reflects the research and analysis that you asked me to do for certain states so that your people know what is permissible when dealing with lawyers in those states.

    Please let me know if you have any questions about the bill.

    Thank you for providing the opportunity to provide legal services. I greatly appreciate it. I will await further instructions from you regarding other states.

    • shg

      This is the sort of strawman that one would expect of a marketer, but not of a competent lawyer:

      “Quite frankly, I think it rude for a lawyer not to say “thank you.” When did simple manners become a nuisance to some?”

      This has nothing to do with simple manners. This is about feigning obsequiuousness to manufacture a half-assed marketing post. You want to say “thank you” to a client? Give her a call. Tell her something real. Tell that you really appreciate the fact that she trusts you enough to let you handle her matters. Maybe even buy her a drink or dinner once in a while. Put a little flesh in the game out of your own pocket.

      But add a little smiley face thank you to the bottom of the cover letter? That’s not “simple manners,” but rote nonsense. That’s the crappy recording on the 17 minute wait for a customer service rep that “we really value your business,” or when your product fails and you lost a day of work, “we’re sorry for your inconvenience.” Frankly, I think it’s rude to mail in a post like this in the hope that Sam will send you lunch money.

  • A cover letter that briefly explains what the bill was for and why can go a LONG way towards building a better attorney-client relationship and ensure the attorney getting paid more quickly. Of course, this letter will be almost impossible to write if you are not providing good value, but instead sticking it to the client in every way (less politely referred to as bill padding)…

  • No cover letter should begin with Enclosed please find. Period.

    After that, do what’s best to keep the client happy. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

  • I think sending a short cover letter, or in my case email (since nearly all of my clients request their bills in pdf format by email) is a nice touch. You can set up a basic cover letter/email and then add one or two basic facts about the focus of that month’s billing and thank the client. Unless you’re sending out hundreds of bills a month it seems like an easy task, one any billing/office manager could do. Whether its effective or not I do not know but as my Jewish mother would say – it couldn’t hurt.

  • At the end of the day, my question about any suggested administrative task is always the same, “Does it help me collect more of my fee faster?” If yes, I will do it. If no, I won’t. I don’t see how Roy’s proposed letter will be any help in that regard. Sam’s proposed letter would, but I would be tempted to bill for it, since I have undoubtedly already communicated the same sentiments to my client via telephone or email 5 times that month before my bill came out.

  • Roy Ginsburg

    Couldn’t agree more about “putting a little flesh in the game out of your own pocket.” All are great ideas. However, I never suggested that a cover letter was intended to be a substitute for doing that stuff.

    Sam, with all due respect, I’m not too crazy about your proposed letter. It may be repetitive with the time sheets, not to mention, it takes too long to draft and takes too long for the client to read.

    And Sam, where’s my lunch money? I’m still waiting.

    • To the extent you are advocating for attaching a form letter to invoices, I think you’re dead wrong. It’s valueless, at best, and insulting, at worst. You’re placing way too much emphasis on the need to say “thanks” and none on how thoughtless and lame it is to send a form letter month after month.

  • Roy Ginsburg

    I am not advocating a form letter. Just a few sentences about what has been accomplished. I don’t think any clients would find that “thoughtless and lame.”

    And while I certainly understand some of the sentiment expressed about the form piece of the “thank you,” I suspect that to go beyond that, would likely sound insincere.

    • I’m confused. The example you posted was purely a form letter. Is that not what you’re advocating? Or did you mean for that to include some of the same information I did in my example?

      • shg

        You need to show Roy how to use the “reply” button on these interwebby thingies. It confuses me when he doesn’t use reply.

      • Roy Ginsburg

        Now I’m confused. Below is what I posted. This is what I am advocating. One or two simple sentences about what was done. I am not advocating adding the information that you included in your sample.

        This reflects the research and analysis that you asked me to do for certain states so that your people know what is permissible when dealing with lawyers in those states.

  • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a status letter. It lends context to the billing statement, it provides the client with an update on the case, and–rote or not–it provides an opportunity to let the client know you appreciate the business.

    • Roy Ginsburg

      There is nothing wrong with a status letter; I agree. Sending one with a bill or at another time is always a good idea. It is simply another, different type of communication to the client than the point of my post.

  • Is it just me or does this string of comments seem unduly vituperative?

    I send all bills by email and have a more or less standard email message that refers to the time period and amount of the invoice, andI it has been paid full or in part Outof a retainer I confirm that as well. I end by thanking the,client forte opportunity to be of service. I leave status updates for separate emails or letters, and have the client up to speed on what I have accomplished or what’s upcoming before I send a bill. Seems to work. I often get a quick thank you reply from clients.

  • I think this also depends on how detailed your bills are as well.

    My bill doesn’t say: Telephone Call to Opposing Counsel .4 Hours
    My bill says ” Telephone call to Opposing Counsel – Defendant’s position on the discovery issue is that the information they failed to provide in their Discovery Responses is protected as a private medical record. OC will not budge on this. If we want the information we will have to file a Motion to Compel. .4 Hours

    I generally take these sorts of notes right in the time entry as I am doing the task and so this doesn’t necessitate any extra time invested. With this much detail in the bill I don’t think a detailed cover letter is also necessary.

    • trb

      I’m not convinced that the bill is the appropriate place for that information.

      • To be fair, that isn’t the only way they receive the information and it also depends on they type of law you practice. Because I mostly represent individuals and small businesses I don’t have to worry about billing codes and the like.

        I often have people thank me for the billing details I provide. I’ve also noticed that since I started doing this a few years ago I get a lot less phone calls asking questions like “Why the hell did this phone call cost me $137.50?”

  • Jon Busby

    Hello…Earth calling.

    Only lawyers could spend so much time squabbling over such a minor thing. Want a cover note? Fine. Dont want a cover note? Thats fine to. You decide.

    Love it, keep it up, great to watch. You are a credit to your profession ;-) I bet you all hang out on LinkedIn too.

    Michael, thanks for my new word of the day…vituperative. Got any more that I can Google?

    J

  • I am intrigued by the idea, but even in my small office (three attorneys, one paralegal, one legal assistant, one part-time office manager who sends out the bills), there is NO way that the legal assistant or office manager would have enough information about every case to be able to write anything cogent about a case update. Just in terms of knowledge of cases, it would have to be the attorney or paralegal.

    Even if it took just 5-10 minutes per letter, with each attorney having a caseload from 25 to 60 cases at one time (one of my associates is half time), that’s a minimum of two hours on this task for the half-time associate—and four hours for the rest. For my office, I can’t imagine any of us being able to block off that much time all on the day we generate bills. I wouldn’t bill for this task, either, which would really cut into our billable hour goals for the day. Which means bills would get delayed . . . and all solos and small firms know that means we don’t get paid on time. (And, to be clear, we send out very detailed bills out of our case management system that I DO require all casehandlers to approve and which I review before we e-mail—our bills are sufficiently detailed that I’ve had clients tell me they use the bills as their outline of what’s going on in the case).

    That said, I really did like Sam’s example, and it made me realize that even though we try to communicate carefully with our clients about strategy, and where we are in the road map on each case, it’s not a horrible idea to send out status letters occasionally. But I’d do it on a case-dependent basis. And I’d bill for it.

    And yes, vituperative is a good word. But probably not one we want to be applicable to a conversation on this forum.

    Thanks to all for some interesting thoughts,

    ~Catherine

  • I like the suggestion over on Res Ipsa Lawyer (http://resipsalawyer.com/?p=428) that suggests holding the detailed bill altogether, and instead sending a “progress report” using “client language” with an offer to send the detailed bill on request.

  • As a “recovering” in-house counsel and private practitioner, I generally agree with Roy’s advice. I also agree with other posters that there are many other things that lawyers should do to make sure that clients understand that their business is not taken for granted. However, I also wanted to alert folks to one of the features of electronic billing. Most companies now require legal invoices to be submitted electronically through a third party service such as Examen (LexisNexis), etc. These services DO NOT forward the actual invoice or any accompanying correspondence to the client. Before you spend a lot (or even a little) time preparing a nice cover letter, you should make sure that your intended audience will actually see and read it.