David Zax at Fast Company reports on “How Alan Dershowitz And Two Entrepreneurs Will Disrupt Billable Hours: Viewabill brings radical transparency to the attorney-client relationship”:
Lawyers may not falsely claim decades’ worth of billable hours, but for many of their clients, there’s a feeling that the process of calculating those hours is needlessly opaque. A new application called Viewabill, cofounded by David Schottenstein, Robbie Friedman, and the famous lawyer and writer Alan Dershowitz, aims to bring a new transparency to the process, and a more trusting relationship between business owners and the professionals whose services they contract.
“A lot of tension grows because of misunderstandings over bills and time,” says Dershowitz, who has defended such high-profile clients as O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson. “I just like the idea that everything in the relationship between lawyer and client should be open and transparent.”
The idea behind Viewabill is simplicity itself: a cloud-based application that enables firms to easily track and share their pre-bill activity, and for clients to monitor that activity. The attractively designed app allows users to log on and navigate their pending charges via a dashboard, or periodically receive emails reporting on the charges from their lawyers (or accountants, or copywriters, or any professionals they may contract).
That’s right, that Alan Dershowitz of O.J. Simpson and Reversal of Fortune fame.
Viewabill frames the “problem” as follows:
A lack of information still exists with professionals.
Unexpected bills and last-minute questions become rushed problems and, subsequently, major causes for distrust in many professional relationships.
Even now, when working with an attorney or accountant or any other hourly professional, you may still be left in the dark concerning your bill. You’re faced with not knowing what’s been done or what you owe until an invoice is received. And when invoices do arrive, they can be surprisingly lofty and opaque.
Large amounts of time between invoices leads the human process of seeing, reacting, and adjusting to be pushed back by months at a time (at the earliest).
The Viewabill website adds,
In an effort to maintain their friendship and avoid the seemingly inherent tension that exists in the attorney- client relationship, the two worked out a successful process. By exchanging updates, status reports and time estimates on a daily basis, Robbie’s invoices weren’t a surprise to David and in turn, David paid Robbie on time.
And so they searched, in vain, for a streamlined solution for their cumbersome daily process that would provide David automatic access to Robbie’s daily time entries and project statuses. As their searches came up empty, an idea flourished.
Where to begin?
1. Clients and lawyers do not have a friendship. It is a professional relationship. Full stop.
If there is an “inherent tension in the attorney-client relationship”, then I blame the attorney. A client is entitled to competent, efficient and cost-effective legal representation. This the reason why a client retains a lawyer. If you need an app that fills a perceived need to maintain a friendship, join Facebook or get a dog.
2. Billing practices are as varied as the lawyers who send out their bills. I have no problem with the concept of keeping clients updated regarding the work-in-progress on a client’s file. Best practices dictate maintaining open and timely communication with clients throughout. Billing out monthly is the solution to sticking to a legal budget. If lawyers are holding back on sending out accounts with months of time entries, then many clients will balk when faced with sticker shock. The retainer or engagement letter should be explicit in stating not only the hourly rate and anticipated disbursements, but also impose a litigation or transaction budget.
Most clients are prepared to pay lawyer’s accounts on time. Some other clients are slow payers or chisellers. I predict Viewabill is the perfect cloud computing app for the latter group.
3. Protecting client confidentiality: Viewabill offers a simple registration process:
Viewabill is free for clients and starting is simple.
After a prompt confirmation email, you’re ready to start inviting your attorneys, accountants, consultants, freelancers, and other hourly professionals.
How Viewabill can segregate other accounting information on a software program is beyond my ken. There is also no information regarding protection against improper use of the software app (e.g. client forwards pre-bill to another lawyer and says: “hey, can you do better than my lawyer?”) or third party access to privileged or confidential client information contained in the lawyer’s pre-bills and accounts.
4. Clients are not supposed to be bean counters or snoops.
If any client asked me to accept an invitation for Viewabill, I might oblige, if the client is prepared to reciprocate by providing me with monthly financial statements on ability to pay, or regular FICO credit scores, or their first born.
I understand the rationale behind Viewabill. I just don’t think lawyers, or other professionals, will embrace the idea. I also don’t think that Dershowitz’s celebrity clients will care how much about his time dockets. Of course, I could be wrong, but I’m not.