Every business struggles with unpaid invoices, but attorneys seem to struggle more than most and are typically hesitant to pursue clients for unpaid bills. However, if you remember these 10 rules for getting paid, you’ll be sleeping a lot better at night:
#1: Vet clients carefully.
Attorneys obviously need clients to build a successful law firm but let’s qualify that: you need clients that can and will pay. Before you agree to take on a new client, talk to them about your billing process and let them know your expectations for payment. Do an online search of your prospective client’s name to see if any red flags pop up. With their permission, you can also run a credit check. An easy way to do this is to have them fill out a credit application that includes an authorization to access their credit history. If they refuse this step, consider that a red flag.
#2: Educate your client about your fees.
Don’t assume that your new client understands your fee structure. Talk to them upfront about the services you will likely be providing for their case and let them know how much it will cost. In fact, ABA rules require attorneys to establish an understanding of fees and expenses with clients. If you fear that a client may flee from sticker shock, don’t. If they don’t want to pay what you charge, you do not want them as a client.
#3: Consider alternative fee arrangement options.
If you have not already instituted an alternative fee arrangement in your practice, you may want to consider it if you are running into consistent resistance from new clients and prospects. Clients today want to know how much legal representation will cost them. They prefer fixed fees. You may also want to offer legal services that are limited in scope — for example, providing representation for a negotiation but not for litigation. Just make sure your client understands exactly what the limitations of your representation will entail.
#4: Offer discounts for prompt payment.
In other industries, it is not unusual for companies to offer a small discount for payment within a set, short period of time. You may also want to consider charging interest for late payments — if nothing else, it can give you some extra leverage if you have to negotiate terms for payment of past-due bills.
#5: Ask for a commitment.
Asking your new client for their commitment to pay gives you a psychological advantage, as most people who make a commitment like to stick to it. Ask them if they have a certain date on which they routinely pay their bills and send your invoices accordingly.
#6: Ask for a retainer.
Ask your new client for a prepaid retainer equal to what you anticipate billing in the first 60-90 days that you will hold to secure future payments. Asking for this requirement will give them the message that you expect payment and will demonstrate they have the capability to pay at least part of your fees. And if they don’t pay your first invoice promptly, you still have payment on hand for that invoice.
#7: Deliver value.
Clients are more reluctant to pay if they don’t feel any progress has been made on their case, so be sure your client knows you are busy on the case and making progress. Before you begin the engagement, be sure they understand the value you are providing in helping them navigate the process and be sure you have agreed on the ultimate goal. While you cannot assure an outcome, you can assure them you will be working hard toward achieving their goals.
#8: Communicate often.
Failure to communicate is the #1 reason for client complaints to the bar. It can also be the #1 reason you aren’t getting paid. Even if you are making good progress on the case, if you don’t communicate what you are doing on a regular basis, you have failed to maintain a good client relationship.
#9: Bill regularly.
Some attorneys make the mistake of waiting several months before sending invoices and then send clients a big bill. And nothing seems to make a client madder than this practice! Send your bills out on a regular basis — at least monthly — even if they are for niggling amounts at times.
#10: Eliminate the nickel-and-dime charges.
Don’t bill a client for a lunch when you are already charging him or her thousands of dollars in time and travel. If you discuss the case over the phone, roll up that time charge into the casework itself and not as a separate line item on your invoice. There’s a reason that there are sarcastic jokes about attorneys charging for phone calls — clients hate it!
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