Just this week, I read in yet another Facebook thread yet another attorney complaining about a client not paying his or her bill. Apparently, her client was complaining that the attorney’s bill was too high. And the attorney was (understandably) upset, ready to throw back at the client: “Why is this my problem? Pay your bill!”
So many attorneys seem to feel this is a problem unique to attorneys—that attorneys are singled out as being too expensive, that we overcharge for our services, and, somehow, clients believe we don’t deserve to be paid for all our hard work.
When I first started out in practice, I remember feeling this way, too.
Of course, this could not be further from the truth. Just ask any professional creative, such as a copywriter, graphic designer, photographer or website designer. Hang out in one of those Facebook groups for a bit and you’ll see similar complaints. Those poor folks get asked to work for “exposure!” Wonder how many people that feeds in their family?
My husband is a partner in an engineering firm. His firm does subcontract work. His clients are reluctant to timely pay anything and yet they want all their deliverables yesterday.
The truth is: there are simply a lot of people who don’t want to pay for what they say they need or want. And there are those who are always looking for a bargain, some just to see what they can get away with. Some people just like to push limits.
If you want to get paid what you feel you are worth then you need to make a decision about what that is, write it down (I recommend creating a fee schedule and laminating that sucker so it feels permanent, like a company policy), and then stick to your guns.
That said, sticking to your guns is not enough if you do not clearly communicate your expectations to your client at the outset and continue to proactively communicate with them throughout the entire process.
I cannot stress this enough. This is where most attorneys go wrong in the billing process. We are so afraid to talk about money at the outset for fear that if our prospect knows the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they might not hire us, that we create big problems for both ourselves and for them later down the line.
For example, let’s say, we tell them our retainer is $X,XXX. And then we deplete that retainer and continue to let the clock run, running up additional $X,XXX without communicating that to the client ahead of time. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, they receive an invoice for thousands of dollars they were not expecting. How would you react if you received an invoice for thousands of dollars you were not expecting? Did you know that the median household savings for Americans is $4,830? So it may be that people want to pay you, but are stumped by how they are going to pay an unexpected multi-thousand dollar bill.
“But it says it in my contract!”
Do you see? The average person probably did not read your contract, and if they did, they probably did not understand it. If they understood it, I assure you, they’ve forgotten what it said.
So, what? If you want to get paid, you have to solve the problem.
If you want to get paid without a hassle, it is incumbent upon you to clearly communicate at the outset the terms of your agreement in such a way that there are no surprises for the client when it comes to how much they will owe you, when they will owe you, and for them to have an option at any time before you do the work to stop utilizing your services if they so desire. In other words, your client needs to feel in control.
So, to go back to our example, if that same attorney wanted to set her client relationship up for success, and never put herself in the position of chasing money, she would collect a fee deposit, put that in the trust account, bill against it and then, when the retainer reached a certain level, she would notify the client that the retainer was getting low and that a new retainer would be required within a certain number of days or all work would cease until funds are provided. If not provided by a certain date, the attorney will withdraw. This would all be explained to the client at the outset of the case. At no time should the attorney be doing work without funds in the trust account against which she can bill.
For flat fees, the concept is the same. The scope of work the flat fee covers should be clearly articulate to the client and set forth in writing, with a discussion about some of this issues that could arise that would be outside the scope of services that would require additional fees.
If an attorney is not getting paid and finds herself chasing a client for money, it likely is because she has not clearly communicated with the client at the outset of the matter about possible outcomes and range of fees associated with the case. Or she has failed to continue to proactively communicate about fees as the case progresses.
When we fail to do so, we take away our client’s choice and their power to decide what they truly want. We don’t give them all the information they need to make the best decision about whether it is worth it for them to pursue a particular course of action.
Moreover, we create more stress, anxiety and frustration for ourselves than is necessary.
My point is, if we shift our perspective from one of malice (“My client does not want to pay my bill because he or she thinks attorneys are greedy and don’t deserve to get paid.”) to one compassion (“My client appreciates the work I do and wants to compensate me fairly for it, she just needs to understand how it all works. It is part of my job to set clear expectations at the outset and throughout the process, and to create an environment where we can comfortably discuss money so she can hold up her end of the bargain.”) we begin to realize it is not personal and we diffuse the emotional charge.
When we realize it is not personal, we accept that getting paid timely and appropriately for our services is a business problem that can be solved by using the tools available to us:
1. Good systems
2. Effective communication
3. A well-trained team If you need help creating these tools in your law firm, schedule a conversation with me now so we can discuss how I may be able to help you.
P.S. If you haven’t been listening to my podcast, I suggest you subscribe now. There’s a ton of really terrific content to help you in your journey from solo to CEO of your law firm. You can find us on iTunes. Search for The Solo to CEO Podcast. And be sure to leave us a review. I read every one. Or you can grab them from our website:http://www.dfrederickmedia.com/podcast/ (Coming soon to Stitcher!)