Are You Losing Clients?

If your client retention rate is less than 90-95%, something is terribly wrong.

You might react by changing your fee agreement – aiming to “punish” the client who terminates your services after a substantial amount of work is done but prior to a recovery.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  If you fail to keep one in ten (or more than one in ten clients), it is time for some serious soul searching.

Hybrid Fee Agreements Don’t Solve Client Retention Problems

Don’t get me wrong, hybrid fee agreements have their place.  They are very effective in helping lawyers achieve cash flow during long months of toiling away on a contingent fee case.  They are also a creative way to address client push-back against the traditional hourly fee approach.

They are not effective in curing client retention woes.

What Does it Take to Keep Clients?

Improving client retention isn’t rocket science.  In fact, you can do it by following a simple acronym:  TREAT.

T – be Timely

R – Respond to client requests and concerns

E – show Empathy

A – demonstrate Assurance that client matters are being handled competently

T – deliver on the Tangibles.  Don’t send emails, invoices, or correspondence riddled with errors.

Read more about TREATing clients well here.

To simplify: show the same care and concern to your clients that you wish someone would show to you if you were in their shoes.

Remember that Poor Client Retention Can Lead to Bar Complaints and Malpractice Claims

If you need further motivation to kick your client retention up a notch, understand that how you treat clients is connected to everything in your law practice:

  • Client satisfaction and retention
  • Getting paid on time
  • Minimizing fee disputes
  • Future referrals
  • Avoiding bar complaints and legal malpractice claims

Go beyond TREATing clients well.  Do a thorough client relations check-up. This includes understanding the scope of the attorney-client relationship (when you can act and when you need the client’s informed consent) as well as managing client expectations.

Losing Clients on a Regular Basis Just Shouldn’t Happen

I am not currently in private practice, but in regard to client retention, nothing has really changed.

Back in the day, exactly one client terminated our firm.  This particular client read about a case in the news that she judged to be the same as hers.  She then fired us to free herself up to hire the lawyer who handled the case she read about.

In truth, we dodged a bullet when the client made this decision.  She would never have accepted (from us) that her case didn’t have the same value as the one she read about.

I can also share that in all the years I worked for a private law firm, we were on the other side of a client termination exactly once.

My point here is that my firm – and all firms we knew – simply didn’t lose clients.  And this is still true today for the majority of lawyers.  How do I know?

A large part of my job entails helping lawyers or families of lawyers close law practices.   I have been exposed to lawyers who were at the top of their game and lawyers who were not.  I also have a substantial amount of ongoing client contact due to these closures.

The truth is the lawyers need to do a lot wrong, and generally for some period of time, before clients jump ship.  Therefore, you don’t have to follow my client relations tips or suggestions for TREATing clients well 100% of the time.  No one is perfect.  But you should keep clients uppermost in your mind just about every waking moment that you are at work.

We All Know What to Do – Why Can’t We Do It?

None of this is really new.  So why is it so hard?  The number one reason: you are trying to juggle too many cases without the proper resources.  You are practicing beyond your expertise and not weeding out cases and clients; you are practicing within your scope, but your caseload is too high; you are unwilling to invest in staff, technology, or other solutions.

Making money isn’t easy.  As a result, many lawyers skimp.  They try to get by without hiring someone despite the fact they have more work than they can handle.  This trap is referred to as “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Next week I’ll write about how you can make money by spending money and hiring staff.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

 

 

Why Hiring Staff Pays YOU

money-treeLast week I blogged about client retention.  I ended that post with the following thought:

If we all know what to do to keep clients and cultivate referrals, why is it so hard?

Answer: because you’re trying to juggle too many cases without the proper resources.  Perhaps:

  • You are practicing beyond your areas of expertise
  • You know how to weed out bad clients or cases, but fail to do so
  • You are practicing within your abilities, but your overall caseload is too high
  • You are unwilling to invest in staff, technology, or other solutions to help your practice

The solution?  If the problem is too big of a caseload, and not enough help, hire somebody!  Both you and your clients will be happier because you won’t be struggling (or unable) to keep up with the work.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Making money isn’t easy.  As a result, many lawyers skimp.  Ninety-nine percent of the time when a lawyer is failing (or flailing) they are trying to get by without hiring someone despite the fact they have more work than they can handle.  This trap is referred to as “penny wise and pound foolish.”

In an effort to save pennies, you avoid hiring staff.  Because you aren’t spending money on staff, you assume you are making more money.

What is Your Tipping Point?

There is always a tipping point in every practice when hiring staff means more money in your pocket.  You’ve heard the old saying: you have to spend money to make money.  Guess what?  It applies to running a solo or small law practice.

Make More Money by Hiring Staff

When you spend money on staff, you can delegate away billable and non-billable work and focus on only what you as a lawyer can do for the client.

Do the math:

  • The average Oregon lawyer bills more than $200 per hour.
  • The most highly paid legal staff in the Portland metro area earn $32.56 per hour.
  • The most highly paid legal staff person can work 6.14 hours to every hour spent by a lawyer on a task.  ($200 per hour divided by $32.56 per hour.)
  • Many of the tasks performed by highly paid legal staff can be billed to clients.
  • The average paralegal in our region of the country bills $133 per hour.
  • Round up the high end paralegal’s salary to $33 per hour, add 26% to cover the cost of benefits, and the highly paid paralegal’s total compensation rounds up to $42 per hour.
  • The typical lawyer can net a profit of $91 every time his or her highly paid paralegal bills one hour of time to a client.  (Billable rate of $133 per hour – $42 per hour compensation paid to high end paralegal = profit of $91 for each hour billed.)
  • On a weekly basis, a highly paid paralegal receives $1,680.  ($42 per hour x 40 hours per week.)  If that highly paid paralegal bills 12.63 hours during the course of a 40 hour week, the lawyer paying the paralegal breaks even.  ($133 per hour billed to clients x 12.63 hours = $1679.79.)
  • Any hours the paralegal bills beyond 12.63 is pure profit for the lawyer.  Even with a modest rate of 15 hours billed per week, the lawyer will net $315.21 on  a weekly basis.
  • If the lawyer’s paralegal sustains a billable rate of 15 hours per week for the entire month (60 hours by month-end), the lawyer will completely cover the paralegal’s salary and benefits PLUS MAKE A PROFIT OF $1,260.84 BEYOND THE PARALEGAL’S COMPENSATION.
  • In the meanwhile, the lawyer has relieved him or herself of 60 hours of billable work and approximately 100 hours of nonbillable work: paper filing, efiling, scanning documents, calendaring, running conflict checks, billing clients, banking, running errands, opening files, closing files, and answering the phone.

Your Numbers Will Vary, But the Math Still Adds Up

Obviously the numbers will vary – depending on the type of staff you hire, how you bill staff time, and your staff’s billable hours. But the underlying math is undeniable – staff need only bill a relatively modest amount of time to cover their cost.  Bill just a bit more, and you have a profit center.

So the next time you are evaluating the profitability of your firm, crunch the numbers.  In all likelihood, you will net more profit by hiring staff than not.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

*The most highly compensated staff in Oregon are paralegals, with wages topping out at $5,666 per month.  On the average, there are 174 working hours in a month. A high-end monthly wage of $5,666 divided by 174 hours equates to $32.56 per hour.  Nationally, the average pay for a paralegal is slightly more, $36 per hour.

Crowdfunding Your Law Practice

crowdCrowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.

The crowdfunding model is fueled by three types of actors: the project initiator who proposes the idea and/or project to be funded; individuals or groups who support the idea; and a moderating organization (the “platform”) that brings the parties together to launch the idea.

In 2013, the crowdfunding industry grew to be over $5.1 billion worldwide.
Source: Wikipedia.

Crowdfunding for Lawyers

Potentially, lawyers could use crowdfunding at any time – to jumpstart a law practice, expand a law practice, or bridge the gap during a downturn in business.

As you might expect, crowdfunding is most successful when used to promote a cause or new product idea rather than a service.  But it could work for lawyers if donors find the practice area and marketing pitch appealing.

The Ethics of it All

Before we get too excited about this idea, we need to do a gut check.  Simply put: is crowdfunding ethical?

A quick Internet search produces a list of posts and articles on the subject.  Here are a few:

The first result is by far the most interesting for Oregon lawyers.  In Crowdfunding: The Future Of Public-Interest Funding? author Sam Wright reports a conversation with Oregon lawyer Kellie Ann Furr who is crowdfunding a “private-public interest environmental law firm” on Indiegogo.  Furr is halfway to her fundraising goal of $7,500.  Take the time to look at her campaign and you’ll understand the appeal and her success.

But back to the ethics of it all…

In his Above the Law post about Furr, Wright tells us:

First, she sought and received an informal opinion from the Oregon State Bar on “the ethics of donation-based crowdfunding” to make sure she was on sound ethical footing. She was also careful to select “perks” for donors that would not affect her “professional independence” — in her case, the perks mostly involve volunteer time or pro bono assistance to environmental organizations. And she includes appropriate disclaimers on her campaign page.

So does this mean Oregon lawyers are off and running – free to set up crowdfunding campaigns without a second thought?  Not quite….

Crowdfunding is a “Communication Concerning a Lawyer’s Services” for Purposes of Oregon RPC 7.1

By necessity, crowdfunding involves representations about your potential or ongoing law practice. Therefore, Oregon RPC 7.1 – Communication Concerning a Lawyer’s Services – would apply to the content contained in your crowdfunding appeal:

“A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”

Simply put: lawyers are responsible for ensuring that representations made about their practice are accurate.  For an excellent discussion of this topic, see OSB Formal Opinion No. 2007-180 Internet Advertising: Payment of Referral Fees and the following articles:

“Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit, or Misrepresentation” – the Companion of RPC 7.1

A violation of Oregon RPC 7.1 (communication that is false or misleading) could also implicate Oregon RPC 8.4:

“It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.”

But lawyers can run afoul of RPC 8.4 in other ways.  As discussed below, crowdfunding campaigns often promise “rewards” or “perks” for donors.  Assuming that offering something in return for a donation is ethical, failing to deliver the “reward” or “perk” if all conditions are met would likely be construed as a violation of 8.4.

The Granddaddy of them all: Is Crowdfunding Fee Sharing with a Nonlawyer?

Lawyers and law firms are prohibited from sharing legal fees under Oregon RPC 5.4, except in limited circumstances.  This begs the question: if a donor gives a lawyer money to fund his or her law practice, does this constitute impermissible fee sharing?

Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  Where is the “fee” and how is it “shared?”  Compare the following scenarios:

  1. Lawyer and nonlawyer wish to form an LLC offering business advice.  They intend to charge potential clients a flat fee of $1,000 for their services and split the fee 50/50.  Lawyer will provide the legal advice; nonlawyer will coach clients on business strategies, financing, marketing, and the like.
    While this arrangement raises a number of issues, the question here is: does the proposed fee split violate Oregon RPC 5.4?  The answer is a straightforward: yes!
  2. A donor gives money to a lawyer to start her law practice, no strings attached – the funds are a gift, not a loan; the donor is seeking nothing in return; the lawyer is providing nothing in exchange for the donation.  There is no “fee.”  There is no “sharing.”  The donor could be Mom, Dad, a friend, or a stranger responding to a crowdfunding appeal.  It is hard to understand how this could be a violation of RPC 5.4 – but as always, I encourage readers: take your questions to the experts – OSB General Counsel’s Office.

So crowdfunding looks like a “go,” right?  Not so fast … here’s the thing about crowdfunding.  Donations aren’t generally a “gift” with no strings attached:

The Crowdfunding Centre’s May 2014 report identified the existence of two primary types of crowdfunding:

Rewards crowdfunding: entrepreneurs pre-sell a product or service to launch a business concept without incurring debt or sacrificing equity/shares.
Equity crowdfunding: the backer receives shares of a company, usually in its early stages, in exchange for the money pledged. The company’s success is determined by how successfully it can demonstrate its viability.

Source: Wikipedia.

Permitting donors to take an equity interest in your law firm is clearly impermissible under RPC 5.4.  A rewards approach could quickly go awry if the lawyer violated RPC 7.1, 8.4, or other applicable rules.  Remember Kellie Ann Furr?  Her Indiegogo campaign offers four different “perks” or rewards for donors:  volunteer time, pro bono work, or a one-hour consultation.  She carefully limits the one-hour consultation to Oregon residents only and includes a disclaimer that donating to her campaign does not create an attorney-client relationship. Is this sufficient?  At the risk of repeating myself: take this question to the experts – OSB General Counsel’s Office.

Funding a Law Practice Is Only Part of the Picture: Student Loans, Litigation, and Securities Regulation

Crowdfunding raises issues in other areas as well.  Check out these posts:

Learn More

If you want to learn more about crowdfunding, read the following:

Next, get ethics advice – from independent ethics counsel with whom you form an attorney-client relationship or OSB General Counsel’s Office.  The General Counsel’s Office can help you identify applicable rules, point out relevant formal ethics opinions and other resource material, and give you a reaction to your ethics question – they are always a good place to start.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

Postscript:

In addition to the above, practitioners should also consult with a tax lawyer or CPA. Money raised via crowdfunding will likely be considered taxable income. Check out these guidelines, available from PayPal. A word of caution: as noted here, failure to meet PayPal’s threshold for purposes of generating a 1099 doesn’t mean you aren’t obligated to report the income.

Leaving Your Firm

Parting isn’t always such sweet sorrow.  In fact, it can be downright contentious.

If you are contemplating leaving your firm, do your research. Meeting your ethical obligations fulfills only part of your responsibilities.

IF YOU ARE A PARTNER

Conduct your partnership withdrawal in a manner that honors the contractual and fiduciary responsibilities owed to your fellow partners.  Contractual duties are controlled by your written partnership agreement.  Fiduciary duties are described in case law and codified by statute in Oregon’s Revised Partnership Act.

IF YOU ARE NOT A PARTNER

Review your employment contract, employment letter, office policies, office procedures, or any other applicable terms that may control the process for terminating your relationship with your current firm or your obligations upon departure.

ARE ISSUES LIKELY TO ARISE?

Consult outside counsel experienced in the areas of lawyer mobility, partnerships, fiduciary duties, lawyer separation, and law firm dissolution.

PUT CLIENTS ABOVE ALL ELSE

If you are making a lateral move to another firm or setting up your own practice, remember that the client’s freedom of choice in selection of counsel is paramount.  Always put the interests of your clients first.  Keep the transition as amicable, professional, and stress-free as possible.  Contentious withdrawals alienate clients and damage relationships.

GIVE NOTICE TO YOUR FIRM BEFORE YOU CONTACT CLIENTS

Inform the firm of your decision to leave before contacting any clients.  Failing to give adequate and timely notice to your firm or partners before you contact clients is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.  It may also constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Oregon RPC 8.4(a)(3).

RESOURCES

The Professional Liability Fund has extensive resources for Oregon lawyers who are departing a firm, withdrawing from a partnership, or dissolving a firm.  Visit our Web site for more information.

All rights reserved [2014] Beverly Michaelis.

 

 

The Five C’s of Hybrid Fee Agreements

Call it a hybrid fee agreement (HFA) or an alternative fee agreement (AFA).  Lawyers are looking for creative ways to appeal to clients who are resisting the traditional hourly rate approach.

Employment Law HFA

Consider the employment law case that is less than a slam dunk.  You could put in many hours only to see no fee. Ah, the life of a contingent fee practitioner.

Or is it?  One creative lawyer decided to offer his client a hybrid fee arrangement: a reduced hourly rate of $100 per hour with a 25% contingent kicker in the event of a recovery. (Lower than the “going” contingent rate of 33%.)  If the client agrees, and your fee agreement passes the test below, there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement.

Family Law HFA

Among family law practitioners – who are forbidden to take a contingent fee – a popular hybrid fee arrangement incorporates a flat fee earned upon receipt with an hourly rate that kicks in at a specific stage. The flat fee compensates the lawyer for work done in the early stages of a case: initial consultation; file opening; drafting and finalizing the Petition for Dissolution (or preparing a response); serving the opposing party; drafting and serving the first request for production of documents.  The flat fee could encompass additional services – each lawyer can determine where the cut-off should be – but charging a flat fee for time spent from the first consultation through initial discovery is predictable and easy to do.  Again, if the client agrees and your fee agreement passes the test below, this is a perfectly fine arrangement.

Does your HFA or AFA Pass the Test?

Every fee agreement must satisfy the 5 “C’s” test:

  • Clarity
  • Completeness
  • Compliant
  • Common sense
  • Can’t be excessive

Clarity

If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.

If you decide to experiment with your fee agreements, strive to be as clear as possible.  With the employment law scenario, the main challenge is the math.  Conceptually the idea is pretty clear.  With the family law scenario, the number one problem is failing to explain what the client is “buying” with the initial flat fee earned upon receipt.  Just how far does the $1,000 initial payment go and when does the $200 per hour rate kick in?

Completeness

Consider all possibilities.  A good example in the employment law context: if you have the right to recover attorneys fees, address this in your agreement.  See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-69 [Attorney fee awards are the property of the client unless “the terms of the fee agreement expressly provided that Lawyer was entitled to the greater of the fee computed thereunder or the court-awarded amount.”]  Fee agreements should address all conceivable outcomes.

Compliant

If your client is entering into a contingent fee agreement, he or she must execute the “Oregon State Bar Model Explanation of Contingent Fee Agreementbefore signing an agreement with you.  If you are charging a flat fee earned upon receipt, read and comply fully with Oregon RPC 1.5, Oregon RPC 1.15, and OSB Formal Ethics Opinion 2005-151 (Revised 2011).  May I also suggest reviewing this excellent article: Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011).  Practice Tip: flat fee earned upon receipt fee agreements must include special “disclosure” language set out in Oregon RPC 1.5.

Common Sense

Don’t torture yourself or the client trying to figure out the math of your hybrid fee agreement.  Once you’ve developed a sample, run it by your next door neighbor or another lay person.  Ideally, run it by several nonlawyer friends.  Does it make sense to them?  If not, go back to the drawing board.  Remember: “If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.

Can’t be Excessive

“The Oregon State Bar Legal Ethics Committee has also said that split contingent/hourly fee agreements do not automatically violate the rules of professional conduct. See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-54. However, the committee cautions lawyers that a fee that appears to be lawful at the outset, may turn out to be clearly excessive in the end….” Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011).

All fees are subject to a look-back at the end of the case. The employment law HFA is more likely to be challenged than the family law HFA.  In the employment law scenario, tabulate the total hourly fees charged to the client and your contingent fee share of the recovery.  Add the two together.  Do these exceed the standard contingent rate of one-third?  If they do, you may be on perilous ground. Helen’s article, Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee? discusses all the factors that go into gauging the reasonableness of a fee.

Parting Thoughts

Developing HFAs or AFAs that are ethically compliant and legally enforceable can be done – don’t get discouraged.  In fact, the ABA Law Practice Division (ABA LPD) will soon release Alternative Fees for Business Lawyers and Their ClientsIf you are an Oregon lawyer and want this book (who wouldn’t?) but do not belong to the ABA, use the Professional Liability Fund discount code at checkout to save money: OSBPLF.

All Rights Reserved [2014] Beverly Michaelis

Ethical Issues and Responsibilities in Billing for Paralegals

On July 25 I am presenting Ethical Issues and Responsibilities in Billing for Paralegals on behalf of the National Business Institute and Institute for Paralegal Education.  This program is a practical course designed to enlighten attendees on using ethical billing practices while still satisfying billable hour requirements.  Here are the details:

Program Description

The requirement of paralegals to maintain a certain number of billable hours can sometimes lead to a slippery slope of what qualifies as billable. As you enter your time, you need to be conscious of the fact that every bill tells a story. What do your entries convey? Is your time frequently written off? Do clients fail to appreciate the value of your services? Examine hands-on, practical tips any one can implement so you can avoid ethical missteps and see immediate improvement in your overall productivity and billing practices.

Attendees Will Learn

  • The three key steps to success in billing
  • How to keep time accurately – even if you don’t have sophisticated software
  • How to avoid time being written-off or written down
  • How to manage your time to meet monthly/annual billable hour requirements
  • The magic formula for transforming time entries into the perfect bill
  • The ethics of billing: dos, don’ts, and the role of professionalism
  • Landmark cases establishing the client’s right to collect paralegal fees in conjunction with an attorney fee award
  • Tips for beginners

Who Should Attend

  • Paralegals
  • Legal Assistants
  • Anyone who bills time

CLE Credit

The program has been accredited for 1.0 ethics credits in Washington, California, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio and New Mexico.  NALA and NFPA have also accredited the program for 1.0 ethics credits.  Detailed information is available here.

Registration

Register now by following this link.  This is a Web-based audio program, which includes a Q & A session.  Upon registering, attendees will have access to the downloadable coursebook.  Cost:  $99.00 for the first registrant; $89.00 for each additional registrant.

All Rights Reserved [2014] Beverly Michaelis