I upped my fees. Up Yours.

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Okay, it’s the punchline of an old joke, and a terribly transparent case of click bait. But it’s also offers some good advice.

Especially now.

On any day, most solos and self-employed lawyers charge less than they’re worth. That might not describe you, but I think I’m on safe ground when I say most.

Why? They may not be aware of how much they’re worth, or how much “the market” will bear. And they’re afraid that if they raise their fees, they’ll lose too many clients.

So they look at what other lawyers or firms charge and set “competitive” fees, instead of charging more than their competition and “leveling up” their services to justify higher fees.

But I’ve made this point many times before and I won’t belabor it today.

It’s your decision. But before you decide, I want to point out something you may not have considered.

Inflation.

It’s higher now than it’s been in a very long time and unlikely to come down to earth any time soon.

We’re all paying more for just about everything we buy. Our income doesn’t buy as much, which means we need to earn more just to break even.

Your clients and future clients are in the same boat, and they know it, because they’re also paying more for groceries and gas and everything else.

Which means they probably expect that at some point, they’re also going to pay you more.

You may not want to raise your fees right now. You may not want to “pile on,” especially when many people are having a tough time. You may want to keep your fees at the same level and try to ride out the current wave.

But at some point, you may need to reconsider.

You can’t be benevolent to your clients if you’re hurting. Yes, you may be hurting at a higher level, but that’s beside the point. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

If (and when) you raise your fees, raise them. Don’t pussyfoot around with a 1 or 2% increase. Not when everyone (including you) is seeing their other expenses going up double digits.

You may lose some clients. But you’ll make up for those loses by the increased revenue derived from the clients who stay and from new clients who don’t know how much you used to charge.

I know, easy to say, not so easy to do. But if you want your reality to be one of abundance, not scarcity, you can’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth. And then some, to account for inflation.

How to write an invoice that gets paid

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You can change your name, but not your stripes

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Jimmy, the protagonist in Better Call Saul, couldn’t do it. Changing his name didn’t change who he was.

That’s true for all of us. How we think, what we do, who we are.

Our beliefs about ourselves and the world are the core of our “operating system”. And while we can change our beliefs, we can’t do it by changing our name.

Our beliefs determine our attitudes towards the choices we make, the things we do and how we do them. Our activities determine the results we get. And our results determine our success and lifestyle.

Look at how this works in the context of marketing and managing a law practice.

(1) Our beliefs determine our attitudes

If you believe that that nothing is achieved in life without hard work, that there are no shortcuts, no such thing as “working smarter,” you will no doubt be skeptical about strategies that suggest otherwise.

You would be reluctant to try these strategies because they are inconsistent with your core beliefs.

If you did try any of these strategies, you might do so with an attitude that says, “Those things never work” and you may seek to prove you’re right.

On the other hand, if you believe that some “working smarter” strategies can work, you’ll be open to learning more and giving some strategies an honest try

(2) Our attitudes affect our activities

If you believe working smarter is possible, that you can increase your income without working more hours (and even by working fewer hours), you’ll be willing and perhaps eager to explore strategies that promise that outcome.

Your attitude will be “let’s see” instead of “no way.” And if you try those strategies, you’ll look for ways to make them work instead of trying to prove they won’t.

You may have always used hourly billing in your practice, for example, but you may be willing to try flat fee billing. If you’ve tried it before, you may be willing to try it again.

You’ll at least be open to getting more information about ways to do it effectively and to see how other lawyers are doing it.

(3) Our activity determines our results

Your activities—what you do, how you do it, how much you do and for how long, determine the results you get.

Do more marketing activities, do them better, and you’ll bring in more clients. Try different billing methods and if you find one that allows you to earn more from the same work, you’ll increase your income without putting in more hours.

Maybe even by working fewer hours.

(4) Our results determine our success and lifestyle

If you are able to increase your income by working smarter instead of working harder, in the case of our example, by successfully implementing flat fee billing, you will earn more without working more.

You’ll be able to do that because you believed it was possible.

Our beliefs guide our attitudes, our attitudes affect our activities, our activities determine our results, and our results are how we measure success.

How does this explain the success of people who lie, cheat, and steal their way through life? Who believe that the way to succeed is to do whatever it takes, even if it’s wrong?

They may get away with it, but only for so long. Eventually, their nature catches up with them.

And changing their name, or the name of their company, won’t stop that.

Get the Check: Stress-Free Legal Billing and Collection

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Pro bono as a marketing strategy

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If a client asks for a discount on your fees, don’t do it. For a lot of reasons, you’re just asking for trouble.

And if you’re ever tempted to proactively offer a discount, to an individual client or across the board, be very careful. It might be the right thing to do, but too often, it isn’t.

Instead of discounts, consider offering free services.

Whereas discounts can make you look hungry, even desperate, free services can do just the opposite. They can make you look successful, generous, ready to help people who need help but might not be able to afford it.

They can also be an effective marketing tool.

Pro bono work for a non-profit can help you build your network and get you some free publicity. It also looks good on your CV.

(NB: get a letter from the non-profit specifying how much your work was worth to them; you might get a nice tax deduction, too.)

For regular business or consumer clients, giving away an entry-level service (e.g., a basic will or incorporation), offering free consultations, a free second opinion, and “first hour free,” can bring a lot of business to your door that might have knocked on another lawyer’s door.

But again, you need to be careful.

Whenever you’re inclined to offer a free service, consider making it a short-term promotion and tying it to a holiday or other special occasion, e.g., to celebrate the opening of your second office, your firm’s anniversary, or your birthday.

You might also limit the offer to new clients, to returning clients, to members of a certain class or group or organization, or the employees or clients thereof.

Done right, free services can make you look good and bring in a lot of new business.

Start small and test your promotion. If it’s working, you can repeat it or expand it; if it’s not, you can modify it or quietly retire it.

Fee and billing strategies you need to know and use

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Objection, calls for speculation

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I saw a video the other day that ticked all the boxes. It was clear and concise, delivered the information viewers needed to know, and didn’t waste our time with anything else. One viewer said what many of us were thinking: “Nice, simple and straight to the point.”

Which is what we should all aspire to achieve in our websites, our letters and emails, our articles, briefs, presentations, and all our communication.

William Howard Taft said, “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.”

Clarity is equally important in our bills and invoices.

A bill shouldn’t be merely a list of how you spent your time. It should be a narrative that describes your effort.

Spell out what you did in plain English, and what it means for the client. Use active verbs and specific nouns to describe the process you used to deliver the results you obtained, even if (especially if) those results aren’t yet fully realized.

In school, teachers told us to “show your work” instead of merely reporting the answer. They wanted to see what we thought and did and why.

The same standard should apply to your bill.

Show clients your work; help them see and understand what you did and why. If there isn’t room on the actual invoice, add a cover letter and spell it out.

Don’t make clients guess what you did or what you meant. Explain it to them as if they were a child. Or your teacher.

How to write a bill your clients want to pay

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How much do you charge?

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When you hear from a prospective client who’s first question is, “How much do you charge?” that’s not a good sign.

A prospect who is more focused on price than value, on your fees rather than your solutions to his problem, means you may be dealing with someone who’s going to question everything you do for them and every bill you send them.

So don’t answer that question.

Instead, ask them questions, to learn more about their problem (and pain), to find out what they’re doing now or have done before, and to find out what they want from you, so you can tailor your answer to their situation.

And so you can control the conversation.

You want them to sell you on accepting them as a client, instead of you selling them on hiring you. You do that by asking questions.

When you know enough to quote a fee, you can give them a number or present their options, e.g., Service A or Service B, Package A or Package B. Do this in person or on the phone, if possible, so you can read them, respond to any objections, and close the deal.

Or you can turn the conversation over to a surrogate. “My office manager handles all the fees and billing. . .”

Because someone else can edify you and your capabilities in ways you can’t.

Before any of the above, make sure you have a page on your website that provides general information about your fees and billing practices. No, don’t post your fees. That invites price shopping and discourages prospects from contacting you.

Keep it general. Tell them you bill by the hour or offer flat fees or contingency fees and encourage them to contact you to learn more.

Whatever you do, don’t say “low fees” or “competitive” fees or otherwise suggest you charge less than other lawyers.

Because you don’t (or shouldn’t). And because that’s what attracts people who’s first question is, “How much do you charge?”

How to quote fees and get clients to pay them

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The best piece of advice I ever received as an attorney

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I didn’t learn it in law school. I don’t remember my father (attorney) talking about it. I didn’t read it in a book.

The best advice I ever received came from my grandfather.

He wasn’t an attorney, he was a business owner, farmer, and commodities trader. He made and lost fortunes in his lifetime and taught me a thing or two about business and life.

When I passed the Bar and opened my first office, he visited me, pointed at the top drawer in my desk, and told me that when I get a new client, the first thing I should do is open that drawer and tell the client to drop the cash in it.

Indelicate, yes, put but sound advice.

And I wish I had always followed it.

Clients who didn’t pay me, or pay me in full, were usually the ones I didn’t ask to pay in advance.

Lesson learned.

I hear from lawyers with clients who haven’t paid or slow-pay or try to weasel out of paying in full. Maybe you’ve had one or two.

Getting paid in advance, or at least getting a big retainer, will eliminate most of that, I tell them.

Yeah, but it will also eliminate them from hiring me, I can hear them thinking. And that’s true. But is that a bad thing?

Even if you need the money and believe it’s worth the risk, in the long run, having a (reasonably) strict policy about getting paid up front will serve you well, but not just in terms of cash flow.

It will also help you build your practice with a better crop of clients.

Clients who can and do pay you, on time or early, refer other clients who can do that, too. These types of clients also tend to have more legal matters and are prepared to pay higher fees if you give them what they want.

Should you ever make exceptions? Sure. But make them exceptions, not the rule.

Get the Check: Stress-Free Legal Billing and Collection

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Your fees are too high

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What do you say to a client or prospective client who says your fees are too high?

Do you negotiate? Offer to reduce your fees?

Yeah, don’t do that.

Do you tell them that’s what you charge and they can take it or leave it?

Don’t do that, either.

Instead, say something like, “When you say my fees are too high, what are you comparing this to?”

Let them tell you about other lawyers who charge less.

And then show them why you charge more because you are worth more–to them.

Show the client what they get with you they won’t get from other attorneys.

The best way to do that, of course, is to let your other clients do it for you. Show them your positive reviews and testimonials and share success stories about what you’ve done for other clients.

But maybe the client doesn’t have anyone they’re comparing you with, they think all lawyers fees are too high.

In that case, go over their current problem or situation and ask how much this is costing them now, in terms of time and money and mental anguish.

Let them see how they will be better off hiring you than continuing to live with their current situation.

Finally, if they can’t see things your way, say something like this:

“I don’t want to take your money if you don’t think this is going to work for you. I understand you want to solve this problem but I don’t want to work with you if you’re not committed to working with me to solve it”.

C’mon, you know you want to.

Referred clients make the best clients. Here’s how to get more

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What to say to a client who asks for a free service

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It happens to every attorney. Clients ask for a lower fee or a free service. It’s not a big deal but how you handle it might be. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, the best way to handle this is to avoid it in the first place. Create a clear statement of your fee and billing policies and give a copy to every new client.

Second, when someone (inevitably) asks, be nice about it. Don’t embarrass them, tell them you understand why they’re asking, you’re sympathetic to their situation, you’d like to accommodate them, and you’ll see if you can work something out.

No matter what you say after that, they’ll see that you respect them and considered their request.

Third, focus on value, not cost. Make sure the client understands the value of what you do and, ideally, that it is worth more to them than what they pay.

Show them what might happen if they didn’t hire you, and why they get more value than they would get from other attorneys.

Fifth, don’t make it about you. Frame your response in terms of “the firm” or “our practice,” instead of you. Use phrases like, “the value of our services” (even if you’re a sole practitioner), and say “we” instead of “I”.

Even better, frame it in terms of the client. “The value you get,” or speak broadly–“Our clients tell us they appreciate. . .”.

Sixth, be firm but flexible. Providing discounts and free services tends to devalue what you do, so don’t do it as a matter of course. Instead, suggest a smaller engagement or offer to defer some of their bill.

If you want to give a client a break, make it clear that you’re making an exception and tell them why you’re doing it, e.g, they’ve been with you a long time or you realize they’re going through a tough time.

For more on fees and billing, get my book, “Get the Check“.

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If it’s free, it’s me

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If a prospective client balks at paying your fees, here’s a question you might ask them:

“If my services were free, would you hire me?”

If they say anything but an enthusiastic “yes,” you know there’s something else holding them back. That’s your cue to ask questions and find out what it is.

Because if you don’t know what they object to, you can’t address it.

Now, if they “yes,” they’d hire you if it was free, you know a few things:

  1. You know they know they need the help of an attorney,
  2. You know they see you as capable of helping them, and
  3. You know that your fee really is what’s stopping them.

If it’s the latter, you can then consider other solutions, e.g., a payment plan, a lower-priced service so they can get started, or offering to refer them to another attorney who doesn’t charge as much as you do (which might make them decide they want you after all).

Make sense?

Okay, as long as we’re talking about free, I just learned that Aweber, one of the two email service providers I have used and recommend, just announced the creation of a free plan.

If you’ve been thinking about starting an email newsletter and/or using an autoreponder to stay in touch with clients and prospects, you can do that without paying a single shekel.

The free plan allows a list size of 500, which is plenty for people starting out. If you have a bigger list, their paid plans are reasonably priced.

To learn more, check out this page.

Yes, that’s an affiliate link, because who knows, you might upgrade someday.

Here’s the link again

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Billing and collection during a pandemic

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I heard from an attorney seeking advice about billing and collection during the current crisis. Essentially, he wanted to know what to say and do to accommodate his clients without jeopardizing his firm’s cash flow.

The answer is, it depends.

You know your clients and no doubt have some insight into what they might be going through and what they can handle. Likewise, you know (or can find out) what your landlord and vendors and lenders might be willing to do if you need some accommodation.

That’s why it depends. Your situation might be very different than the firm’s next door.

For most firms, one thing I wouldn’t do is announce a practice-wide abeyance (e.g., 30 or 60 days) on outstanding balances.

Why do that if you don’t have to?

On the other hand, announcing a practice-wide abeyance on late fees and interest might be a nice gesture.

One thing most firms should do is email all clients and tell them that if they have any issues regarding their bill/account during this time of crisis, to contact you to discuss it.

Acknowledge that they might have an issue. Be compassionate and flexible if they do. But don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Some will contact you and you can work something out. Some won’t respond and you’ll need to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, if and when necessary.

Few anticipated the extent of this crisis or were prepared for it. It is truly a case of first impression.

All any of us can do is to treat our clients the way we would like to be treated if the roles were reversed.

Stress-free billing and collection for attorneys: Get the Check

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