Easing the transition to a new billing system
By Carol L. Schlein
many reasons why a law firm may change software. The most
common situation is a vendor’s release of a new version and
firms decide to upgrade. Sometimes, a change in hardware
necessitates a change in the firm’s software. Also, a change
in personnel can be the impetus for change if the new staff
has different skills and experience from their predecessors.
Changing firms or employment situations can result in some
of the most dramatic changes. Regardless of the reasons,
careful planning and preparation, coupled with realistic
expectations, can result in a smoother transition.
worked recently with two new sole practitioners who had been
of counsel to a larger firm for many years. Their former
firm provided many services including a secretary who
entered their time records into the billing system and
prepared their documents and bills. Both lawyers recently
became subtenants of one of my clients. I was asked to
assist them implement their new billing program.
first issue was their expectations about when to send their
first bills. The attorneys moved into their suite in early
June. I met with them to discuss their specific billing
requirements and order billing software. Luckily, most of
their client names and addresses were in Outlook, so we
could import that as the billing program contact list.
both attorneys commented that their billing practices and
requirements were identical - they both billed by the hour
and billed clients monthly - there were many more
substantive differences between their practices than they
realized or acknowledged. For example, one attorney had a
single billing rate; his colleague had five different rates
and wanted specific messages about his discounted rates on
were some major differences in their bill layouts, both in
the information to be included and the format. One generally
had two matters for each client and wanted them consolidated
with a recap of the total amount owed as part of the bill.
The other attorney generally had a single matter for each
client but insisted on including a cover letter with each
bill. By now, it’s apparent they weren’t as identical as
they could send their first bills, we had to enter previous
balances. Both attorneys could have saved much time and
effort if they had anticipated this step. In one case, an
assistant unnecessarily entered many matters and balances
for work the attorney intended to write off. Being a cash
based business, there’s no reason to carry open balances,
then write them off.
much more important to get the balances owed from clients
who will pay their bills into the system. Ironically, the
same attorney thought his assistant could save time by
starting with balances after payments recently received
rather than the balances owed when he began his new venture.
As I explained, if we didn’t start with the old firm’s
balances, the money he received between the old firm and new
would not be entered and could be easily omitted at the end
of the year when calculating his year’s income.
the balances were entered, there still was the task of
entering the first month’s time, expenses and payments. At
long last, we were able to generate the initial set of bills
for each attorney. Subsequent months will be much easier.
other major issue was the lawyers’ expectation that their
new billing program would produce exactly the same bill
format as their former firm’s system. I seem to encounter
this issue regularly, whether in the context of a conversion
or an upgrade. It never ceases to amaze me how many
attorneys get bogged down on the tiniest formatting details
of their bill but either lose interest or refuse to invest
the time to review the substantive content of those bills.
They agonize over where dates, lines and labels will appear
while neglecting to review pre-bills that include such
important details as each timekeeper’s billing rate and
descriptions of their time.
often point out that clients rarely refuse to pay bills,
even if they don’t like the phrase that accompanies the
current total due. While billing systems allow us to create
custom designs, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of
spending too long on a bill, personalized envelope or cover
letter that may not even be seen by the client. Each billing
product has quirks that make it difficult to match another
layout. Focus on designing a bill that’s clear so clients
can understand what services have been rendered and what
charges are due.
Lawyers rarely realize their bills are one of the most
important pieces of communication with clients. Sending
bills monthly is a good way of regularly letting clients
know what work has been done on their behalf. Well worded
time descriptions that explain what services have been
rendered is much more important than whether the bill uses
the term “invoice number” or “bill number.”
starting a new firm, there’s not much control over timing.
You can, however, take steps to give yourself sufficient
time to get a new systems set up before expecting to send
the first bills. These two lawyers knew several months
before contacting me they would become solos. Had they begun
the process earlier, their first bills could have gone out
sooner and with much less stress. They also could have taken
the time to consider additional changes to streamline their
billing procedures. For example, they might have been able
to identify which clients would prefer bills by e-mail
rather than paper. They also could have considered
consolidating some rate levels to make tracking and managing
them simpler. Additional time also would have allowed them
to create a client matter numbering system rather than
merely continuing the numbers used at their prior firm.
upgrading or converting a billing system, there’s more
control over the timetable. Ideally, you should bill as much
work in process as possible pre-conversion so you don’t have
an immediate need to produce bills in either a brand-new
version or a totally new product. Upgrades are a good time
to ensure your firm is using the product to its fullest
potential. If you regularly take information from the
billing program and massage it in a spreadsheet, you should
determine whether the new version can prepare the needed
information directly. It’s been my experience that billing
system vendors often add new functions or features in direct
response to customer requests. Where earlier versions may
have required complicated workarounds, later versions will
resolve and simplify those issues.
when staff turns over, they’re trained by their predecessor.
While this can save time and money, incorrect steps and
information can be passed from one employee to the next.
I’ve worked with several firms recently where we determined
the previous billing person completely misunderstood some
aspect of the program and, as a result, taught their
successor incorrect procedures. In some cases, such
omissions or errors were costly in that posting procedures
hadn’t been done correctly and client balances were wrong.
Converting billing systems can be traumatic. Out goes
something familiar, in comes something new and different.
Careful evaluation and selection of the replacement product
can ensure important functions and reports are not lost in
the transition. I’ve seen many firms assume their
colleague’s billing needs are similar to theirs, only to
find some aspect of their billing, such as how the lawyers
are compensated for work performed or fees collected is
dramatically different. I’ve also seen too many firms assume
that popular billing programs all will do the same thing the
same way, only to discover the reports available are not the
same and cannot be used to assess the firm’s data the same
way. Carefully consider how you evaluate your lawyers work
when considering converting from one billing system to
Regardless of the reasons for a change, careful selection
and planning and reasonable expectations go a
long way toward ensuring a smooth transition.
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in
Montclair, a training and consulting firm specializing in
law firm automation. Copies of her previous columns are on
losinc.com, which also
lists upcoming meetings and training classes. For
email@example.com or check the website. Schlein formerly
chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the ABA Law
Practice Management Section and can be reached at
Questions for Carol L. Schlein on law office technology may
be e-mailed to New Jersey Lawyer at
faxed to (908) 226-0165.