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Intern's Role in the Law Office's Billing Practices

published February 21, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 162 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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Working paralegals are sometimes under great pressure to produce a certain number of billable hours. Interns who are also paid employees may face similar expectations. In offices relying primarily on hourly billing for their income, a paralegal's quota can be high, amounting to a billable sum that is typically three times the paralegal's salary.
Intern's Role in the Law Office's Billing Practices

In response to these pressures, lawyers and paralegals are sometimes tempted to inflate their time records, reporting significantly more time than what was actually spent working for a client. Although rounding up to the next closest increment is normally permitted, reporting completely fictitious segments of time constitutes deception. Billing a client for work not done is fraud. It can be a criminal offense as well as the basis for civil suit by a client. Clearly, no intern should report segments of time that were not spent on a client matter.

Billing for Internship Work

The office's billing policies are not determined by staff, of course, but by the managing partners of the firm. The intern has little choice but to carry out those policies. Unpaid interns are not always comfortable having clients billed for their work, so it may be helpful to understand the issues involved.

Billing clients for work done by a paralegal intern-even though the intern may be working without pay-is not an unusual practice. It does not create for the office the kind of windfall profit that interns sometimes imagine. The income it produces is usually less than what an experienced paralegal could produce. In fact, billing clients for internship work helps pay the overhead expense of having an intern in the office. (Overhead costs include such things as insurance, space, use of equipment and resources, and time spent training the intern.) Billing for the intern's work may be what makes the internship possible. Indeed, the prospect of producing billable hours is a bargaining point students often use to land an internship.

A separate issue, however, is the rate at which clients are billed for an intern's work. Normally, interns do not have the expertise and efficiency of an experienced paralegal, so their billing rates tend to be lower than those of more experienced paralegals. Clients who are aware of the status of billing parties listed on their bills often expect a lower rate for someone whose position is clearly that of a learner. Probate courts, bankruptcy courts, and other forums with authority to approve (or disapprove) bills for legal services are even more likely to insist on reduced billing rates for personnel in training. Some have begun creating guidelines requiring it.

In companies to which the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies (businesses directly engaged in interstate commerce with annual sales of $500,000 or more, including public agencies and medical and educational institutions), billing clients for work done by unpaid interns may indicate a violation of federal minimum wage guidelines.

Other factors are also considered under the FLSA, such as the degree of training benefit to the intern (as opposed to benefit to the employer), and the extent to which on-the-job learning is comparable to the learning experience found in a vocational school program. A few large employers have been prosecuted under the FLSA for billing clients for unpaid internship work, so this may be an issue to bring to the attention of some offices.

State minimum wage laws may also restrict client billing for internship work. Because state laws on this subject vary considerably from state to state, the law in your state should be checked.

Students with questions about an intern's role in the office's billing practices should consult the following individuals for clarification:
  • The supervising attorney
  • The legal administrator or office manager
  • A managing partner of the firm
  • The internship director at school

Calendaring and Tickler Systems

Because deadlines so thoroughly rule legal work, every deadline must be continually and meticulously monitored. Again, different methods are possible and not all law offices use the same systems. But, as with filing and timekeeping, all calendaring or "tickler" systems have certain things in common. Most offices have at least two such systems in place for monitoring deadlines and upcoming obligations. Having multiple systems operating simultaneously provides an important safety net; it is also a common requirement for lawyers' professional liability insurance. Typically, a centralized docket control system for the entire office is supplemented by individual calendaring or diary systems maintained by each lawyer. The centralized and individual systems are frequently cross-checked. In some offices, a third backup system (usually centralized) exists as an additional safeguard.

Centralized Docket Control Systems

A centralized docket control system may go by any number of names, including suspense system, tickler system, and time control system. Centralized systems monitor upcoming obligations and provide reminders to the attorneys and paralegals responsible for them. One person usually has the task of maintaining the office's system, adding new deadlines to the system as they become known, and sending out periodic reminders. This person may be the docket clerk (in a large office), a secretary, or (in a small office) a paralegal who also assumes administrative responsibilities. A second person (such as an attorney or secretary) is responsible for cross-checking the centralized system against other systems also in place.

Some offices use a collection of file folders instead of file cards. The file folder system is set up the same way as the file card system but on a larger scale. Full-sized copies of memos or notices are placed in each dated file folder. Other offices use commercially prepared and sold perpetual calendar systems with tear-out reminder slips. The reminder slips are prepared in triplicate for sending to the responsible attorney as a due date approaches.

Nowadays, most offices are replacing their manual systems with computerized calendar systems. Professional liability insurers often give credits or discounts for their use, so computerized systems are becoming increasingly common. With these systems, lawyers and paralegals enter deadlines onto a master calendar for the office using fee networked computer terminals on their desks. Most computer programs automatically add each entry onto individual task lists. Using this system, lawyers and paralegals not only check the master calendar but also print out their individual task lists as often as needed.

Regardless of what system is used, it is only as reliable as the information put into it. Interns who are managing client files must be diligent about entering all upcoming deadlines into the office's tickler system, without delay. When a new client file is created, the following things should be done:
  • Check the statute of limitations that applies (if any) to the case. In the client's file, note the date on which the statute tolls. Enter this date into the office's calendaring system as well.
  • Make a list of the procedural steps needed in the client's matter and find out the dates by which each step should occur. Enter these deadlines into the file and the office's tickler system.
  • Do a periodic review-weekly or monthly, depending on how fast the case is moving-of files you are managing for checking and revising deadlines in the light of new developments.
  • Schedule these periodic reviews in the tickler system right along with other deadlines, and also in your personal calendar or planner.

Pocket Planners or Calendars

Most professionals carry a pocket calendar (also known as a daily planner, yearly planner, or business diary) with them every day. It may be a bound, wallet-sized book or a larger spiral-bound affair. Whatever their size or appearance, daily planners or pocket calendars contain pages for every day of the year with spaces for writing in appointments, assignments, meetings, and other obligations. Often, they contain separate sections in the back for important addresses and phone numbers and for recording mileage traveled

on office business and out-of-pocket expenses. Personal calendars or planners can be purchased at stationery business supply, department, and discount stores for anywhere from $5 to $35.

Every paralegal intern needs a planner or pocket calendar. You can create your own using an inexpensive spiral-bound notebook-the kind stenographers use. A planner you create for yourself may actually work better than any you could buy at the store.

Keep your pocket planner, calendar, or notebook-facsimile with you at all times. You will need it as a reference throughout your day as you continually record new assignments and due dates. Also, remember that it contains the names of clients and details about work being done for them- confidential information that should not be seen by anyone from outside of the office.

Interns quickly discover that a pocket calendar or planner is indispensable. It is far more reliable than memory alone, and you will depend on it heavily to guide you through each work day. Additionally, it provides a valuable reference for later reporting your activities to the office supervisor and the director at your school. When the internship ends, your planner also provides the specifics you need for an impressive, skills-based resume and for detailed discussions in future job interviews.

Despite the apparent chaos of some offices and the seeming calm of others, there is a rhythm and pattern to workers' use of office facilities. There may also be a certain protocol involved in the use of those facilities. This section helps you find your way through such issues as defining your own work space, using common areas such as the law library and conference rooms, and gaining access to the equipment you need to do your job.

Defining Your Own Space

In large firms, in some corporate settings, and in major governmental offices where internships may always be taking place, a designated work area may be readily available for the new intern. Students in such settings often move right into their own room or cubicle and find a phone, a computer terminal, a desk, and supplies at their immediate disposal. However, this is probably the exception rather than the rule.

In solo practices, municipal offices, charitable and nonprofit organizations, and other offices operating on tight budgets, space is often scarce. In these settings, work space may be shared with another part-time worker. In offices where even this kind of sharing is not possible, interns may find themselves working in temporary, improvised settings.

If you verified your work-space arrangements in your interview, then your assigned area is known to you and you have ensured its suitability. If you were not able to clarify these arrangements in advance or if you have been given something less than what you were promised, you may need to negotiate a better arrangement.

At minimum, your work space should provide the following:
  • A reasonable degree of peace and quiet, so you can concentrate
  • An undisturbed place for keeping client files, books, and papers
  • Ready access to a nearby phone if making and receiving calls is part of your job
  • Access to a word processor on a predictable (if not constant) basis
  • Basic desk supplies such as notepaper, pencils, paper clips, and stapler
  • Enough ventilation to avoid unhealthy conditions

As long as you have these essentials, you should be able to perform your internship as well as anyone. But if any of these elements is missing, bring it to the office supervisor's attention right away. Pleasantly but firmly point out that you need these tiling to carry out your assignments and to fulfill the educational goals of your internship. Once this is understood, most offices will do everything possible to accommodate your basic needs. If not, and if the situation is indeed hindering the success of your internship, inform the internship director at your school.

In many ways, the space in which you work reflects your personality and your work ethic. Let your space reflect concern for the work you do, care for the clients you serve, and awareness of those around you. As files and papers accumulate, try to keep them organized so that, in your absence, others can find anything that might be needed. If you share a desk with another worker, reach a clear agreement about where each of you keeps working files and papers. And keep your space neat enough mat colleagues passing by your area will be favorably impressed-not appalled-by what they see on your desk.

Using Common Areas

The conference room and the reception area or waiting room are used mainly by outsiders, including clients and professionals from other offices. The law library is used by others in your office, usually on an unpredictable basis. At times, the library may even double as a conference room for meetings with clients and outside attorneys. So any of these places may be crowded and busy at times.

Reception Area Discussions

The reception area or waiting room is where you may occasionally meet a client for the first time. This is the office's most public area, so friendliness and cordiality to strangers are the rule here. Most importantly, the reception area also invites serious risks to client confidentiality.

Anxious clients sometimes want to discuss their cases before the "hellos" have hardly been said. Other clients and outside attorneys may also be waiting in this area, and they may overhear details that should not be shared.

For this reason, receptionists and staff greeting a client in the waiting room try to immediately discourage conversations about a client's case in this setting. "Attorney Green (or Paul Paralegal) will talk to you about that in his office," or words to that effect, gently bring clients' personal questions temporarily to a halt. Pleasantly changing the subject further ensures that there will be no talk about the client's case until later-and no hard feelings either. For example, "Is it still raining pretty hard out there?" directs the client's thoughts elsewhere for the moment.

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

About LawCrossing

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

published February 21, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 162 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.