Alan Dershowitz aims for a Reversal of Fortune for Lawyers with Viewabill

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.”

Alan Dershowitz

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.

Cover of "Reversal of Fortune"

Cover of Reversal of Fortune

Viewabill frames the “problem” as follows:

The Problem

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.

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5 Responses to “Alan Dershowitz aims for a Reversal of Fortune for Lawyers with Viewabill”

  1. Max Kennerly Says:

    Any client of mine can ask for a description of my pending work at any time, but a client who feels the need to snoop on me in real-time obviously doesn’t trust me and thus obviously needs to hire someone else.

    Then there’s another problem: if you’re so cost-conscious, do you really want to slow your lawyer down by adding yet another layer of oversight and administration for them to maintain? Writing what they’re doing into a silly interface isn’t costless. Re-typing is one of the great enemies of efficient work.

  2. Antonin I. Pribetic Says:

    Thanks, Max.

    “Friends don’t let friends bill their friends in real-time”, or something like that.

    Micro-management and auditing of lawyer’s work-in-progress does put into question the trust between a lawyer and client. Viewabill states that the app is free for clients, but, as you point out, it is the lawyer who likely faces additional administrative costs, which ironically, will be passed on to the client.

  3. Windypundit Says:

    I, on the other hand, have no problem with this concept whatsoever. But then I’m not a lawyer, I’m a software engineer. We’ve been doing stuff like this for years.

    Our projects are a lot more open-ended. For example, it takes a certain amount of development to get a commercial website to the point of viability, but after that it’s just a question of how fast you want to spend money to keep fixing bugs and adding features, and the choices of which bugs to fix first and which features to add next are entirely up to the client (within technical limitations). In a modern agile development process, it wouldn’t be surprising to discuss progress and priorities with the client every single day.

    It’s not about snooping, and it’s not about trust. It is a bit about bean counting, but that’s a perfectly legitimate concern when working on an open-ended project. Mostly, it’s about communicating regularly to make sure I’m always working on what will give the client the most value. At any point, we should be able to stop and say this is the best we could do with the time and resources we’ve had so far. That takes constant communication, because the client is the only true judge of value, and I’m the only true judge of cost.

    It sounds like someone (software engineers?) is trying to take a very successful software project management methodology and apply it to the legal world, but I don’t know if lawyers have any kinds of work that fits the model. I suspect legal matters aren’t nearly as open-ended as software projects, and especially in the case of litigation they’re much harder to control. Also, I’m pretty sure the client is in a much poorer position to understand the value of particular bits of legal work.

    BTW, I looked into signing up, and Viewabill for those who are billing for services starts at $4/matter/month, minimum of 10 matters.

  4. Antonin I. Pribetic Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that viewabill may have some benefit in open-ended projects. As you correctly observe, litigation, in particular, has too many independent variables and client’s rarely appreciate the skill and experience required to conduct litigation. They are primarily interested in the outcome- settlement of judgment— but a litigation budget is indispensible.

  5. Viewabill: Alan Dershowitz Wants Your Clients to Know What You Are Doing - Lawyerist.com Says:

    [...] If you want to try this out with your clients now, and you use Freshbooks, just edit any project and check the box next to Client can see summaries of dates worked and tasks logged. I don’t think they will get as much information as they would from Viewabill, but they will certainly get enough to sound the alarm if they think you are out of control. (via The Trial Warrior Blog) [...]

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