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Double billing is the unethical practice, employed by some attorneys, of billing two or more clients at the full rate for work performed during a single period of time. Prohibited by the American Bar Association in the United States, the practice is difficult to police because attorneys’ billing records are confidential and clients, upon being billed for time, usually have no way of knowing if another client has been billed for the same time. There are many variations on the topic, all of which pose ethical problems for lawyers.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “A lawyer’s time is his stock in trade,” and the modern legal profession in the United States agrees, billing clients primarily by the hour, in increments often as short as five minutes. Lawyers in firms are usually under pressure to bill their clients for at least 2,000 hours per year, which works out to about 40 per week, but it’s not unusual for 5,000 hours or more to be billed annually by a single attorney, reflecting a year of 100-hour weeks. Such workweeks sometimes occur, but the little research that exists on the topic suggest that many of those attorneys worked far fewer hours, and tallied those billing hours by double billing clients.
Double billing takes a number of different forms. Ideally, when an attorney works on an issue for a client, that client is billed for the actual time worked. If an attorney bills a client for time not spent working on the client’s case, that’s outright fraud. The dilemma occurs in between the two; for example, when a lawyer is working on an issue that’s relevant to more than a single client. That is, if the lawyer spends half an hour researching a topic that’s pertinent to the cases of two separate clients, billing each client for half an hour at the regular hourly rate is double billing, justified by the billing attorney with the argument that each client received the benefit of a half-hour of of the research. At the end of the day, though, the attorney who double bills winds up billing more hours than were actually worked. Other attorneys, though, hold that while they should be compensated for the time they spent working, the two clients should each be billed for 50% of that time.
There are other variations on the concept of double billing. For example, if an attorney travels to a destination on behalf of one client, it’s perfectly acceptable that the cost of the travel, such as airline tickets, be charged to the client, as well as a reasonable charge for the actual time spent traveling. It’s not uncommon, though, for an attorney on such a trip for a client to perform work for another and charge that client the regular rate. Many attorneys would argue that it’s acceptable to do so, especially if the rate they charge for travel is less than the rate they charge for office time, since travel doesn't employ the same skills as are required for research, writing or in-court litigation.
Some of the jobs attorneys perform for clients are billed on a flat rate, such real estate transactions, simple will preparations and other routine tasks. There have been proposals by some that the profession develop a way of billing for the value of work, rather than the hours put in, so that if multiple clients benefit from the work done in one block of an attorney’s time, standards would exist for billing clients for that value that wouldn’t violate ethical standards. While it’s a crude analogy, the automobile industry has developed its flat rate book to avoid problems related to the same job costing such different amounts for different situations; such an approach would relieve the ethical dilemma many attorneys face every time they fill out a billing statement.