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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How much should you charge?

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How do you determine your fees?

No doubt you consider your overhead, how much you want to earn, and how much other lawyers charge.

But there’s something else you should consider:

How much is it costing the prospective client who doesn’t get the benefits and outcomes you offer?

How much are they spending in direct costs, lost opportunity costs, and emotional costs?

If a business owner isn’t collecting money owed to them, how much are they losing each month?

If a estate planning client doesn’t have the protections they need, how much are they putting at risk and how much could it cost their estate if they die or become incapacitated?

If a family law client is seeing a therapist to deal with unresolved emotional issues, how much are they spending each month?

When you know what the prospective client is spending or risking, you can show them how your services provide a better value.

People make “buying” decisions based on emotions and then justify those decisions based on logic.

If you can show them how hiring you actually saves them money, the logic becomes undeniable.

How to take a quantum leap in your practice

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The Wizard of OZ and your law practice

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In The Wizard of OZ, each of the main characters wanted something. The Scarecrow wanted brains, the Tin man wanted a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wanted courage.

To succeed as lawyers, we need all three.

Of the three, the most important trait for financial success is courage, according to a large study of wealth in America.

You can read it about the study and its conclusions in The Millionaire Next Door by Dr. Thomas Stanley.

Dr. Stanley tells us:

“Courage can be developed. But it cannot be nurtured in an environment that eliminates all risks, all difficulty, all dangers. It takes considerable courage to work in an environment in which one is compensated according to one’s performance. Most affluent people have courage. What evidence supports this statement? Most affluent people in America are either business owners or employees who are paid on an incentive basis.” [emphasis added]

So, are you paid on an incentive basis?

You can be.

Whether you bill by the hour, flat fees, or any other type of fee, look for ways to add incentives–extra fees, bonuses, stock, percentages of the deal–to be paid to you if and when you achieve certain results for the client.

You can also do this in contingency fee cases. A higher percentage or bonus that is triggered when you reach one or more specified thresholds.

You should do this because there are only so many hours in a day and if you want to earn more than the average attorney, this is a good way to do it.

Assuming the client agrees and the state Bar approves.

I know, the idea both excites you and scares you. You have a lot of “what ifs” going through your mind. It may not even be possible in your jurisdiction.

Do yourself a favor and find out.

“Most affluent people have courage,” Dr. Stanley says. How about you?

For more creative billing ideas, get my book

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Working hard or hardly working?

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Many lawyers complain (brag) about having too much work to do. Other lawyers don’t have enough work (clients, cases, billable hours) and want more.

How about you?

Are you earning as much as you want? Working as much as you want? Are you working too hard or are you ready for more?

Hold on. It’s not as simple as getting more clients or working fewer hours. There’s another option.

You could bring in “better” clients and “bigger” cases.

Instead of clients who pay $5,000 or $10,000, what if you brought in clients who pay $25,000 or $50,000?

Instead billing $300 per hour, what if you could get clients who pay $800 per hour?

Instead of handling tort cases with $20,000 contingency fees, what if you could attract the ones with six- and seven-figure potential?

They’re out there. Someone is getting these cases and clients. Why not you?

I’ll tell you why not. Perhaps, deep down, you don’t want them. You know you’d have to do too much to get them, and if you did get them, you’d have to do more work or take on more overhead or deal with more pressure than you want.

And that’s fair.

For most of my career, I handled small to medium cases and clients, for those very reasons. And made a good living doing it.

So, if that’s what appeals to you, I’m on your side.

Right now, we’re hearing a lot about a four-hour work-week. Some companies who’ve tried it are reporting more productive and happier employees and no loss of revenue. Some companies say they’re earning more.

In my practice, I cut my work-week down to three days and saw my income soar.

Anything’s possible.

You can earn more and work less. You can build the practice and lifestyle you want.

Some advice:

This year, instead of waiting to see what happens, decide what you want to happen and find ways to make it so.

This can help

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Breaking in new clients

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I saw a post recently praising Scrivener, my favorite long-form writing app. The poster said, “The best tools get out of the craftsman’s way and make the job easier.”

True.

What’s also true is that the best clients get out of their lawyer’s way, making their job easier.

But not all clients do that.

As you undoubtedly know, a big source of friction between client and lawyer are disagreements about how the matter should be handled. Especially with a client who wants to micromanage their case.

Is there anything you can do to help your clients get out of your way and let you do your job?

Sure.

Have a heart-to-heart talk with new clients before you do the work.

Explain that they will make the big decisions but you need to be able to handle the day-to-day strategy and other things lawyers do. Explain why this is important and in their best interest. You might give them an example or two of previous engagements to illustrate.

While you’re at it, explain your policies about other things that tend to cause friction, like fees and billing and updates.

Tell them when updates will be provided, how billing is handled, how long things should take, and what to do when they have questions.

Get them to tell you they understand and agree.

Put these “agreements” in writing–in your retainer agreement or in a separate document that both of you date and sign. You can use a standard checklist and leave room to write in things specific to the case or client.

This won’t eliminate all points of friction but it should go a long way towards reducing them. And, if there’s a problem, you’ll have something in your file that can help resolve it.

Managing your (new) client’s expectations this way will also help you deliver a better experience for them.

If they’re expecting monthly updates, for example, and you provide them more often, or if they expect to be billed for something and you absorb the cost, you’ll have some happy campers.

Happy campers who get out of your way and make your job easier.

How to prepare an invoice that gets paid on time

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Fees matter only when nothing else matters

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If you’re like most attorneys, you pay attention to what your competition charges and make an effort to keep your fees in line with theirs.

You don’t have to.

Because fees are way down the list of factors clients cite for choosing their attorney. And because there are things you can do to distinguish yourself from your competition, making it more likely that clients will choose you (and stick with you) even if you charge more.

How can you differentiate yourself? Here you go:

Better results.

If you’re better than other attorneys in your field, don’t keep that a secret. Let prospective clients and the people who refer them know you’re better than other lawyers in your field. Prove it by highlighting your accomplishments, reviews, testimonials, and endorsements.

Better service.

Yes, clients will pay more for better service. At least the kinds of clients you want. But quality service isn’t enough, you have to deliver amazing service. You need to be so good your clients wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. So good they want to tell everyone about you.

Specialization.

Clients prefer lawyers who specialize and they’re willing to pay more for them. They see specialists as having greater skills, knowledge, and experience. They believe that a lawyer who specializes can do the job better and quicker and with fewer problems or distractions, and this is worth more to them.

They also prefer lawyers who specialize in their niche, market or type of client.

Know, like, trust.

Other lawyers may do what you do, deliver the results you deliver, give their clients incredible service, but they aren’t you.

You are unique.

When your clients and referral sources know, like, and trust you, they will usually continue to choose you. 

Build relationships with your clients and professional contacts. Get to know them (and their families, partners, and key people) on a personal level, and make sure they know you, too.

Show your market that you are better or different. If you do, your fees won’t matter. If you don’t, your fees will be the only that matters.

More ways to differentiate yourself

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