The $1000 Word

Word choice in a fee application cost a Chapter 13 lawyer $1000 yesterday.  We all know about forbidden words; most of us even know some.  Would you have guessed that “prepare” was one of them?

I was waiting my turn in court, on a fee app no less, when the fee application of a well established firm came up.  The judge read off a time entry:  “Prepare debtor’s budget – 3 hours”.

“Debtors “prepare” budgets,” the judge intoned.  “Lawyers might review them, but debtors prepare them”.  The fees requested were reduced by $1000.

To be precise, it was not just the choice of the word “prepare” but its combination with a task the judge found not to be a professional’s work that triggered the reduction.

There are two fundamental lessons to be learned here about the award of fees in Chapter 13:

First, the courts will only approve payment for work that is legal in nature.  Work that is clerical, or as in this case, the debtor’s task, isn’t compensible.

Second, your choice of words frames how the work is perceived. Even at the level of the time entry, you are telling the story of what you did, why it was important, and why it took that long.  Let’s imagine if the offending time entry in this story had said, ” Review debtor’s budget and supporting documents; conference with debtor on adequacy of proffered numbers;  revise budget.”  I’ll bet the law firm would have recovered more of its time for the project.

This also reinforces a point I made in the training Jay Fleischman and I did recently:  pick your verbs carefully.  Never  use “fax” when it could be read as the act of transmitting the writing, which is a clerical task and not therefore billable.  Use “draft” to emphasis the creative nature of the work.  Likewise, don’t “mail” documents to the trustee;  instead “draft cover letter to trustee with requested documents”.

I like to lead time entries with verbs:  draft, analysis, research, calculate, appear…all words that conjure up lawyerly undertakings.

Fee applications are a form of story-telling.  Be sensitive to the story you recount.

Image courtesy doctorwonder




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