With law firm revenues taking a hit from COVID-19, effective billing and collection procedures have never been more important. Follow the best practices outlined below to minimize hiccups.
- Review pre-bills carefully. Misspelled names and billing errors are irksome to clients.
- Correct any mistakes that slip by quickly and accurately – the first time.
- Issue statements before clients receive their paychecks – before the 15th and again at month end. If you serve corporate clients, send bills in a manner and format that works for the accounts payable department. When cash flow is challenging – for you or your client – weekly billing may be an option.
- Always include a due date on statements. Most clients prioritize payment based on due date.
- Offer incentives. In lieu of late fees or interest, offer clients a discount if payment is received within 10 days of the billing date.
- Give clients the 411. Your bill should tell a story – the who, what, and why of the work performed.
- Stick to your agreed upon billing interval. Monthly, quarterly, weekly – whatever it may be. Inconsistent billings disrupt firm cash flow, infuriate clients, and make collection more difficult.
- Be flexible in how you accept payment – Venmo, Zelle, PayPal, ApplePay, credit card. Absorbing processing fees may not be fun but it’s better than not getting paid.
Head off problems
- Always take the time to discuss fees, costs, and billing procedures. Most nonpaying clients who file retaliation suits or malpractice counterclaims do so because they never understood what the lawyer’s services would cost.
- Never leave home without a written fee agreement. Be specific and complete. Your agreement should: (a) specify the scope and timing of services; (b) describe what the client is expected to pay for and when; (c) explain billing practices; (d) identify what will occur if payment is not timely made. Losing a potential client who refuses to negotiate and agree to a comprehensive fee and engagement agreement is a small price to pay compared to defending yourself in a malpractice claim or disciplinary proceeding.
- Consider alternative fee arrangements – flat fees, fixed fees, unbundled fees, evergreen retainers, or “last month’s rent.” Clients cooperate more fully when they are financially invested in their case. If the client is unwilling to commit financially, the matter quickly becomes your problem rather than the client’s.
- Don’t allow outstanding fees to accumulate during the course of representation. As soon as a payment is missed, call the client. Get to the root of the nonpayment. Is the client dissatisfied? If a client becomes seriously delinquent, terminate the attorney-client relationship and withdraw from representation if possible.
- Offer to resolve disputes through the Oregon State Bar’s Fee Dispute Resolution Program.
Before you sue
Ask yourself these questions:
- Will a judgment be collectible if obtained?
- Do you stand to gain or lose a substantial amount of money?
- Are there any grounds upon which the client can credibly dispute the debt or any part of it?
- Have you really listened to your client’s side of the dispute?
- Was a good result obtained in the underlying case?
- Has an uninvolved, experienced lawyer reviewed the file for possible malpractice?
- Will a law suit result in bad publicity reflecting negatively on you or your law firm?
- Have you offered to arbitrate, compromise or meet the client part way on the amount due?
Most collection problems can be averted at the outset of representation. A frank discussion of fees, finances, and billing procedures will greatly reduce the possibility of disputes.
All Rights Reserved 2020 Beverly Michaelis