Take off your shoes to solve billing issues. That's right! Take off your shoes right now. We'll tell you why in just a minute. Lawyers spend hundreds of hours thinking, researching, writing, and arguing the law right down to the finest legal points. But when it comes to dealing with clients on the *most* sensitive matter of all, many lawyers look the other way. Lawyers, it seems, are just like everyone else when it comes to discussing dollars. There's a reason for that; it *is* difficult to talk about the price for your services. This is especially true when many lay people are clueless about what lawyers do and how they charge for it.
Good risk management means dealing properly with clients regarding fees, whether it be someone seeking legal advice for the first time in their life, or a seasoned business professional who does not make a move without advice from counsel. Carefully handling fee issues at the
start and throughout the engagement (no matter the duration) is one of the most important keys to avoiding unhappy client situations, from losing a good client to having to defend the almost inevitable malpractice action that results from filing a suit for fees. Here is one simple rule that
most lawyers never really follow for avoiding fee related problems.
Ready? Got your shoes off? O.K., now put on your clients' shoes. Yes. Be they penny loafers, high-heeled pumps, moccasins, wing-tips, thongs, cowboy boots, name-brand or discount store, they all come with their own perspective. And to see how your clients are going to perceive you, think like they do. Are they just really cash poor and need to be very efficient about what services they are buying? Are they corporate and understand the legal system with its related costs and just don't want to be taken advantage of? Do they expect a certain hourly rate and no more? Are they prepared for the extra costs from that twist their case took? When is the last time you talked to them about fees and all of the different possible turns of the representation?
The point is that many lawyers are absorbed in their legal work, leaving the billing function for a clerk in the accounting department who has never met the client. Even if you are a sole practitioner, you likely have not been seriously considering each and every bill. Fortunately, the remedy is simple and quickly implemented, yet it is the one thing that most firms don't do that could solve many collection problems and/or eventual client relations issues.
The next billing cycle, be sure you personally see every bill before it goes out. In your head, as you look at each bill, get into your client's shoes. See the bill from their point of view. View it as they do. Is it easily understood? Is it clear what work is being billed for? Is it what you expected? Are you happy with it?
If you are not getting answers to those questions that would please *that particular* client, make a change, or contact the client. Add a personal note on the bill if that will fix it. Put in some other notes as necessary and appropriate; "as we discussed," "if you need clarification give me a call," "everything is on track for trial," "thank you for allowing me to represent you," "Hi John, I look forward to our meeting next week." At a minimum initial it. (And yes, *do* hand write the notes!) The benefits of this simple and quick task are many. First, the client will know that you, personally, have reviewed the bill, touched it as they are now, thought about them and their issues, and maybe even took time to invite a question or at least say hello. That's a real personal touch right at a time (getting the bill) that you want to reassure them. It also tells them that you *care*, even about the details of an engagement. It will make you look less like the utility bill and more like a friend.
If you think that this takes too long, or would too easily invite additional calls from clients, think about the time/money it takes to handle a lengthy collection, a suit for fees, a discipline complaint or malpractice action. Besides, you just could learn something walking a mile in their moccasins. At least the exercise will do you some good.