Law Firm Bookkeeping 101: Everything you Need to Know

Answering the most common questions around your firm’s finances and expenses are heavily tied to – yes, you guessed it – bookkeeping. One should never overlook the importance of accurate bookkeeping, especially since that’s the very lifeline to how your business keeps the lights on and your employees working. As a managing partner for a smaller firm, it may seem more economical to do the books yourself, but bookkeeping functions as a solid foundation for all your other expenses, trust accounts, and taxes that come later on in the year knocking. 

You probably have questions as to what you need to know about law firm bookkeeping and ways to get ahead of those pesky, end-of-year shuffling for those receipts and expenses that may have gotten lost. With proper records of revenue, you’ll have all the itemized data needed to move forward with important business decisions so you can stay in business and, possibly most importantly of all, stay profitable when you want to expand or sell your business later on down the line.

Now let’s dive in further to understand what law firm bookkeeping is and how you can build a solid foundation for your business.

What is Law Firm Bookkeeping?

While this may be spoken in tandem with accounting, bookkeeping is considered the baseline for how accountants and CPAs operate. After all, you need to know multiplication before you can advance into algebra. If the sums are incorrect, the rest will fall apart by proxy.

Think of bookkeeping as recording everyday business expenses, including: 

  • Payroll
  • Invoices
  • Client expenses
  • Trust accounts, and
  • All other cumulative financial transactions 

If you save it or spend it, bookkeeping must track it. Aggregating all of this data lets you move one step forward to making strategic business decisions, which is where accounting comes in.

Financial Accounting

If bookkeeping can be described as multiplication, then accounting is when you move into algebraic formulas and beyond. Far more than just helping you file tax returns, knowing accounting processes and how CPAs operate is invaluable to having accurate, profitable financials in a law firm. 

Accounting includes:

  • Financial reporting
  • Tax returns and additional reductions
  • Compliance rules in your specific state
  • Banking structure (checking, savings, trust, etc.)

Having a CPA helps you make the right choices for your firm’s future, including the best way to manage trust accounts and avoid common costly mistakes when taxes come around. 

Bookkeeping vs Accounting

Both bookkeeping and accounting build on each other to become a powerful force of data for your firm. Not many attorneys go into business with the intent to be a numbers guy or girl. 

When thinking of how bookkeeping and accounting work together, understand these key differences:

  • Bookkeeping is the administrative tasks attributed to your expenses, such as logging and categorization
  • Accounting helps you identify key performance indicators, taking those numbers and providing insights

Both cannot function without the other, so be sure to have a dedicated bookkeeper ready to have everything organized for you not just tax season, but every season.

IOLTA Bookkeeping

All funds meant to go to clients must absolutely go into a trust account separate from everyday funds. Often referred to as “interest on lawyers trust accounts,” or IOLTA, these must abide by certain compliance standards – which going against can mean disbarment in severe circumstances. Taking any money out to pay for other fees or day-to-day operations is known as borrowing and can be very problematic if mishandled.

Here are some integral pieces you need to know about IOLTA accounts:

  • See if your bookkeeping service also keeps track of IOLTA, as this is just as important as your checking and other firm accounts
  • Ensure there’s a ledger detailing all the inflows and outflows of every transaction involving a client’s funds
  • You are not allowed to use an IOLTA account in any capacity as a savings account – money paid to you must be moved into a separate business account

Weekly Cash Forecast

The value of accurate bookkeeping lets you gain insights to know your inflow and outflow of cash at any given time. Since things have been extra turbulent with COVID-19, having as much transparency as possible to the cash flow in your firm is essential now more than ever. 

Working with a CPA and the power of applicable legal accounting software lets you pull data and spend history from any time period that’s been entered. From there, you can print checks and even sync with your current point of sale (POS) system easily, accounting for every dollar going out and in. 

Controller and Monthly Financial Meeting

Many times, law firm bookkeeping has a monthly overview going over firm revenue, payroll, and other operational costs and ledgers to keep you informed. 

These financial results and forecasts are shared as a way to make informed decisions without any detail left out. The great thing with software? There’s a free CPA login option on most legal billing and accounting software programs, giving them all that’s needed for reporting and state-specific compliance for your area of law.

4 Tips and Best Practices for Bookkeepers

To help your bookkeeper, here are some best practices:

#1: Know Your Accounting Method

Choosing between the two methods of accounting – cash accounting or accrual accounting – sets the stage for all your financial documents and impact cash flow. 

The cash accounting method records funds whenever they’re moved regardless of the time they were received, while the accrual accounting method records as it happens, no matter what. As you may already realize, the cash accounting method is more popular, as it isn’t as time-sensitive or dependent on accounts receivable and payable. 

#2: Be Aware of Billable Time vs Non-billable

As a law firm bookkeeper or CPA, the main pulse of profitability is evaluating whether a firm’s time is spent on revenue-generating activities or being stuck in the mud of administrative tasks. Staff productivity can be a common roadblock for law firms being profitable, even if many cases are successful and money’s coming in. Proper reporting on billable time vs non-billed hours can easily provide data to managing partners to help cut down on those tasks and get their legal billing in a better place – before it gets out of hand.

#3: Check all Tax Obligations

Law firms are constantly dealing with revenue and funds that are transferred, disbursed, and deposited. Being knowledgeable with all the taxes for firms to be aware of can help meet all the sales tax obligations before growing, hiring, or buying a new office. 

Types of taxes include:

  • Income
  • Employment
  • Self-employment

It can all pile up and be very overwhelming to keep track of. Couple that with unique state taxes based on your property, location, and structure… well, you see it’s very complex, and not something attorneys have time to keep track of. The right CPA can sort all of the pieces with you to ensure reporting is tracked and necessary taxes are paid to stay in business. 

#4: Automate as Many Billing Processes as Possible

Since there are so many things that can get lost – receipts and other transactions such as new office equipment or training – automating billing can ease a lot of the burden on retroactively finding this information. What does this mean, exactly? Having a software system that tracks recurring expenses can help bookkeepers better forecast spend and cash flow. Plus, electronic pre-bill approval lets attorneys make edits to bills without back-and-forth emails. Notate right on the bill; it gets fixed, and sent out quicker than ever (up to 30% faster we’ve found, in fact).

Knowing your money in real-time, and giving employees the ability to log anything spent on a case from any mobile device can be a powerful tool to give you accuracy at any given moment. Plus, electronic billing is also easier to keep track of – for money coming in and going out.

Choosing the Right Bookkeeping Software for You

To help keep a pulse on your firm’s funds, law firm bookkeeping is an essential way to ensure bills are paid and clients’ trust funds are tracked accordingly. With practice management software, you can sync with any accounting software such as QuickBooks, so your CPA has a quick view of funds whenever they need it. Less stress on you, and more forecasting for them. 

Want to learn more about staying agile in a technology-driven world? Centerbase offers many of the automated billing features mentioned in this article, and we’d be happy to help see what you need for real-time reporting and insights to stay profitable. Feel free to contact us for more information, or subscribe to our blog for the latest updates in the legal world. 

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