As a recovering attorney, I never thought I would write an article like this.           

Say what you will about lawyers, but many are good at getting paid. There’s a reason: we are forced to account for every six minutes of our lives. Every six minutes. More than that, we have to convince someone to pay for that time.

In my current role as head of customer success for CloudPeeps, I see invoices drafted by freelancers daily. Although a freelancer may be incredibly experienced in their field or craft, it’s possible that they’re not that experienced in or familiar with the invoicing process.

It could be that they were working in-house, or maybe their clients were managing the invoicing process for them. No matter the reason, it’s valuable for freelancers to understand how to effectively invoice a client in order to be compensated for their hard work.

Instead of subjecting perfectly happy freelancers to the horror of the billable hour, I wanted to be of service to them and the freelancing world. That’s why I am sharing ten ways to invoice like a lawyer. Note: I use “invoice” and “bill” interchangeably in this post, but they mean the same thing. 

1) Be detailed

Invoices should break down the day you worked, what you did, and how much time you spent on each task. Think of it as a receipt at a restaurant; if you were handed a bill for $20 for “food, beer, and tax,” would you pay it? My guess is that you’d want to know exactly how much that O’Douls cost you.

The same is true with your client. If you spent 20 minutes researching and 45 minutes writing, let them know!

Check out this incredibly exciting invoice I sent to my then client, CloudPeeps, as an example:

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2) Think, “Is this reasonable?”

Look over your invoice before you send it and determine if you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time on the project and on each task. In other words, if you got the invoice yourself and saw that another freelancer spent the same amount of time on a project, would you be okay with it? If not, your client likely won’t be fine with it either.

Keeping track of your time spent as you work can help make sure your invoice is reasonable, and your actions accountableIf a task is taking you longer than expected, to the point where you’d be invoicing an unreasonable amount, let your client know.

3) Ask before exceeding your budget

If you’ve been given a budget by a client and it’s taking more time to complete than anticipated, let your client know and get approval before exceeding the budget. This will create trust and it also presents an opportunity for you to expand the scope of your work.

Or, if your client is inflexible, you can let them know it’s not the right job for you. It’s always better to find out your client isn’t willing to pay you before you do the work than after.

4) Realize that not all tasks take 1.0 or 0.5 hours

Often, invoices will look something like this:

  Task 1: 0.5 hours

 Task 2: 4.0 hours

 Task 3: 2.5 hours

 Task 4: 1.0 hours

Life is never so precise that all tasks occur in 30-minute increments. If it was, it’d be boring.  When you present a invoice like this to a client, it’s assumed you have rounded – and you get a gold star if you know that a client never thinks you rounded down.

gold-starIf you keep an accurate watch on your time, you’ll soon see that the above invoice would like something like:

  Task 1: 0.4 hours

 Task 2: 3.8 hours

 Task 3: 2.5 hours

 Task 4: 0.9 hours

Is it annoying to keep such close tabs on your time? Absolutely. But for a freelancer, it’s a must when billing hourly. Also, diversity rules, even when referring to numbers. So give your friend “0.7” a shot!

5) Think long-term

Your invoices (or bills) aren’t just a way for you to collect money, they are a way for you to receive continuing business. If your bill is less than friendly, no one will want to see one from you again. You may be wondering, what’s a friendly bill?

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This is friendliest Bill I could find. Yet even Mr. Clinton, an attorney himself, knows how to invoice clients and build long-term relationships.

A friendly bill is a detailed and accurate one that does an effective job at illustrating the time you’ve spent and the tasks you’ve accomplished. It’s an honest bill.

6) Communicate before sending the invoice

If the first time a client hears about cost is when you send your invoice, you’re already in the hole. Make it a habit to let your clients know how much an invoice will be for, if you’re on path to charge a lot (or a little!). If they ask you to complete a task, let them know beforehand how much time you think it will take.

Ideally, this should all be outlined clearly in your contract before you get to work. That said, issues and needs arise. That’s why communicating an approximation of how much time a task will take or how much it will cost is so important for building trust and a healthy relationship.

7) Be candid about cost-effective strategies

If your client wants you to do X, but they will save money and outcome by doing Y, let them know. They’ll appreciate it, start trusting you more, and it could lead to more work and referrals.

Even if it means your invoice will be lighter, remember: building a freelance business ain’t a track meet, it’s a marathon.

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8) Write down time spent that you don’t charge for

A comment I hear often is, “Never do work that you don’t get paid for.” Wouldn’t that be grand? When you run your own business, this is simply not reality. Whether it’s time spent waiting for a call to start or quickly scanning an e-mail before heading out the door, there will always be some time that may not be compensable, but that you still spent on your client.

That said, just because you aren’t charging for something doesn’t mean you have to let it go unnoticed. Let’s say you spent an hour on a phone call, convincing a client to hire you – your bill could look something like this:

“Initial phone call discussing scope of client’s project (No charge); Review of company’s current protocols (0.8 hours)”

See what you did there? You turned time you couldn’t charge for into a happy little note.

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9) Check for typos

A sloppy invoice can lead a client to think you’ve done sloppy work, so make sure to proofread your invoice as carefully as you edit your work. This is particularly true if you’re in a writing profession. As with all communications with a client, make sure to review your invoice carefully before you send it.   

10) Send your invoice on time

If you want to convince your client you’re good at managing time, start with managing your own.  

Wait too long after completing a job to send an invoice and the client may forget all the awesome work you’ve done. The best time to send a bill is right after you’ve completed a project or on a set schedule that you stick to, like every two weeks. Even if the client says they need extra time to pay, send them the invoice with a note that it’s not due until the date you agreed on and follow up later.

Follow these tips, and you’ll be billing like a lawyer in no time!

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Have questions about invoicing or billing? Leave them in the comments below!