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Internships in Law Firms

published February 21, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 32 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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In an internship for credit, students are usually required to keep a record for their schools of time spent in the office to verify how the program's internship requirements have been met. This record may be a daily log, a journal, a weekly summary, or other reporting system. Each school has its own procedures, and interns should follow whatever format their school requires. For many interns, no other timekeeping records are needed.

Among students working in law firms, however, additional timekeeping may be required for the office itself. If clients are billed by the hour for work done on their behalf, detailed time records are needed to calculate the client's bill.

Lawyers and paralegals may have to keep careful track of at least three things:
  1. the amount of time spent,
  2. the kind of work done for each client, and
  3. the date on which the work was performed. These details are then reported on clients' bills.

Even when hourly billing is not a factor, offices may have other reasons for requiring paralegals to keep time records, such as the following:
  • Corporate legal departments may need to prove that in-house legal work is economically preferable to hiring outside counsel; internal time records make that comparison possible.
  • Law offices that bill clients on a contingency fee basis (such as in personal injury work) may nevertheless want to document hourly costs to ensure payment if the law firm withdraws or is dismissed from a case.
  • Time records may be needed to justify even flat fees when clients' fees are subject to a court's review-in bankruptcy and probate matters, for example.
  • Some offices keep time records for management purposes, to determine the efficiency of their methods or gauge the profitability of certain work.
  • Offices that depend on legislative funding or on private grant money may also monitor efficiency and work output to justify future funding.

Keeping Time Sheets

Each office has its own method of tracking lawyers' and paralegals' time. Increasingly, time records are logged in on a computer, but many offices still use written time sheets in various formats. Traditionally, time records have consisted of commercially preprinted sheets, each containing a series of smaller perforated forms, or time slips, to be completed for each task being reported. When computer software is used instead, the format presented on the computer screen contains essentially the same information as the printed sheets and may even resemble them visually. Ask for instruction on the method used in your office early on-preferably during the first or second day on the job.

Whether computerized or handwritten and regardless of format, time sheets generally have spaces marked for filling in the following information:
  • Your name
  • File number or other identification code for the client
  • A description of the client's matter (one client may have several matters, such as a divorce and a real estate transaction)
  • The date on which the work was performed
  • The total time spent on this client matter on that date
  • A brief description of the work performed, such as a telephone conference or legal research

The description of each task justifies the time being reported and the amount being billed. Today, clients are more likely to question their fees than in the past, so the basis of every fee has to be clear. The description need not be lengthy, but it should be detailed enough that the client reading a bill or a court reviewing the office's fees will understand what work was done and how that work relates to the case or transaction. For example, the phrase "reviewed documents" would not be sufficient. Instead, the time sheet should state what documents were reviewed-such as, "reviewed 2012 corporate minutes."

With computerized record keeping, prescribed abbreviations or codes are used for describing routine tasks. For instance, "telephone conference with client" may be indicated by selecting (from a menu) the code number for that activity. Recording the work you perform is easier and faster if timekeeping software is used. Its use is increasing for that reason.

Similarly, handwritten abbreviations or symbols are often used to streamline the use of printed timekeeping sheets. For example, the phrase "with client" might be written as "w/c" or "wc." "Phone conference" might be abbreviated to "pc," and "letter" might be abbreviated to "It." Your office may have its own shorthand references.

Shorthand references must be uniform throughout the office so the bookkeeper will know how to interpret them. Rather than make up their own, interns should inquire about the office's preferred shorthand references for handwritten time records. A list of your office's preferred abbreviations is probably available.

The amount of time spent on a client matter is recorded in increments such as one-tenth, one-sixth, or one-fourth of an hour. For example, a half hour is usually reported on time sheets as ".5." Two and a half hours would be "2.5." In offices using one-tenth increments, "1.7" represents one hour and forty-two minutes. In offices using one-sixth increments, the closest equivalent would be "1.4," which represents one hour and forty minutes. Each office uses one of these incremental methods consistently, so interns need to know which method is preferred.

Hourly segments are easier to add and subtract than actual minutes, so bills can be calculated faster and with fewer errors. Using hourly segments simplifies the bookkeeping process and provides uniform billing records that are easy for clients and courts to interpret. Of the three segmented timekeeping methods just mentioned, one-tenth-hour (or six-minute) increments offer the greatest precision and may be the most commonly-used method.

Of course, no one works in six-minute bursts, so it is often difficult for newcomers to adapt to this rather unnatural segmenting of their time. Lawyers and paralegals handle this by rounding up or rounding down their actual time to the next closest increment. For instance, a 10-minute phone conversation with a client might be rounded up to two-sixths of an hour or ".2" (actually 12 minutes). A forty-five-minute conference might be rounded down to seven-sixths of an hour or ".7" (actually forty-two minutes). Some offices have the policy of always rounding up to the next increment.

Billing decisions are the lawyer's responsibility, so interns should see what the office's policy is regarding the rounding up or rounding down of time spent on client tasks. If continual rounding up makes your reported times seem overly high to you, discuss this concern with your supervisor. He or she may suggest adjustments that are appropriate for someone whose assignments are naturally slowed by on-the-job learning.

For many interns, simply remembering to record tasks and the time spent on each is the greatest stumbling block to good timekeeping. Juggling several cases and moving rapidly from one to another, a busy intern easily forgets how much time was spent on each task. Without an ongoing record, the time spent on each activity has to be estimated long after it took place. By the end of the day, remembering what activities were performed for which clients- much less how many minutes were spent on each-may be impossible.

A good practice is to keep a note pad handy for jotting down each new activity as you begin it, noting the time it was begun and the time it was put aside. The day's time sheets can then be completed at the end of the day, all at once. Your notes make it possible to complete them accurately.

Timekeeping notes can be one of several important items you keep in a personal calendar or planner, in which many job-related details are recorded.

Paralegal interns need to be aware of at least three ethics issues in tracking and reporting their time for client billing. These issues are double billing, padding your time, and appropriate billing for internship work. Regarding the first two issues, the rules governing lawyers are universally clear and are also reflected in all major codes of ethics and professional responsibility for paralegals. The third issue is less clear-cut but nevertheless deserves consideration.

Double Billing

Double billing occurs when the time spent on a single task is attributed (and therefore billed) to two or more clients. For example, suppose an intern spends one hour in the law library researching a new appeals procedure and the research is useful to the cases of two clients. Can the intern report one hour for the first client's case and another hour for the second client as well? This has been the practice in many law offices but, increasingly, the answer is no.

The American Bar Association issued its first formal opinion on the practice of double billing in 1993, stating that law offices may not charge more than one client for the same hours of work? In offices where time and billing are computerized, the software system may detect double billing automatically, warning the user that "this is a duplicate entry." When that occurs, you need instructions from your supervisor.

To avoid possible ethical problems, the best approach is usually to apportion the time (and the hourly bill) between the two clients that benefited from it. Ask your supervising attorney to suggest a fair apportionment.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

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LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit
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