Keep Accounting Nightmares Out of Your Life

In our recent post, we talked about all of the things lawyers have to do to keep their accounts squeaky clean: >

Deposit (most) retainers into a trust account.

Bill their clients, then apply all or some of the retainer funds against the bill.

Mark the invoice as paid, then transfer the applicable money from trust account to operating account.

Update the retainer balance accordingly.

In real life, here is what that looks like:

To see how closely related law firm billing and trust accounting are; take a look at this simple example:

1. On January 1, you opened a new case with an initial retainer of $5,000. You deposited the $5,000 in your attorney trust account. Your trust books need to reflect a retainer balance of $5,000.
2. In January, you record $2,700 in time and expenses. You charge it to the matter.

3. On January 31, your books need to reflect the following: $2,700 for the unbilled balance, and $5,000 for the retainer balance.
4. On February 1, you generate an invoice. This converts unbilled time and expenses to billed. Your books now need to reflect $0 for the unbilled balance, moving the $2,700 into the unpaid balance column. The retainer balance is still $5,000.
5. The same day, you pay the invoice from the client’s retainer balance. Your books now need to reflect the unbilled balance as $0, the unpaid balance as $0, and retainer balance as $2,300. You can make a deposit of $2,300 from your trust account to your operating account.

Skip one of these steps, and you are stuck playing detective.

Say you apply a retainer in trust to a specific invoice, but forget to write the check in your trust bookkeeping system. You’ll have an invoice marked paid, but no funds drawn. You might not even notice your own mistake. Imagine the headache involved in tracing this mistake.

Now multiply that scenario by a few occurrences. For each mistake? At best, you’ve got an administrative nightmare on your hands. At worst, you’re under billing-or in inadvertent violation of an ethical regulation.