Looking at Fees and Billing with a Fresh Eye

What if collection problems prevail across your entire clientele – not just a few accounts?  It may be time to turn a critical eye toward your current fee structure and billing practices:legal_document_istock_0

Switch to AFAs – Alternative Fee Arrangements

Combining flat and hourly or hourly and contingent fees may solve at least some of your cashflow problems. In litigation it’s easy to dismiss flat fees as unworkable: “I just can’t do it because the nature of the case is too unpredictable.”

Is this really true or is it an excuse not to change?

Let’s take dissolution.  I would expect nine out of ten lawyers to reject flat fees outright, but wait a minute.  Fees aren’t “all or nothing.”  More accurately, they’re anything you want them to be (almost). Therefore, it is perfectly doable in dissolution to flat fee at least the first stage of the case:  initial client interview, client follow-up, preparing and serving the petition, initial mandatory discovery.  Go hourly thereafter, but look for other opportunities (stages/discrete tasks) where you can propose flat fees.  In short, be more flexible.  Done right, an AFA could mean collecting a flat fee up front for the initial stage of the case with a requirement for an evergreen retainer once hourly billing kicks in.

Do a Better Job of Educating Clients

As I’ve noted before, many a collection problem can be traced back to the initial client interview when the lawyer failed to adequately discuss billing practices. If you don’t have an honest, open discussion about fees, costs, and billing practices, reform now!

  • Reinforce what you tell the client by using billing brochures enclosed with your fee agreement.
  • Or if you don’t like the brochure idea, attach a one page bullet list of your billing procedures.
  • Prefer to be paperless?  Send clients to a private web page that serves the same purpose. Consider requiring clients to read and accept your web-based billing procedures before eSigning your fee agreement.

Why am I suggesting brochures, lists, and web pages?  The brutal truth is that even the shortest fee agreement is probably too long for the average client to digest.  But we can make billing more understandable!

When you separate and reformat billing details using brochures or bulleted lists you improve readability.  [Much like what I did in the preceding paragraphs.]  Improving readability increases comprehension and understanding.  If you go the Web page route, use the same or similar formatting techniques.

Change How You’re Paid

It’s hard to imagine a law firm that doesn’t accept credit cards, but I know you’re out there.  If you’re part of this group, and you’re also experiencing collection problems, start taking credit cards.  Yes, there are a few things you need to know – for example – how to pick a merchant to process payments and what to do about merchant fees (aka credit card surcharges or transaction fees).  But I’ve got your back.  Read the hyperlinked posts included above and you’ll get the answers you need.

Not convinced? Statistics reveal that 43% of consumers prefer to pay by debit card, 35% with a credit card.  Granted, legal fees are not a typical consumer purchase, but still: why would you disregard what many consider a preferable payment method?

Credit cards can be an ideal solution for collecting flat fees earned upon receipt or the cost of an initial consultation.  Many a family law lawyer has shared that clients would not be able to afford their services without the ability to put their bill on a credit card…

Be More Like Bugs Bunny

Yes, this is the carrot/stick metaphor.  It’s this simple: discounts are a client motivator.  If you want to collect a retainer, up-front fee, or take care of an outstanding balance give the client a financial incentive to pay you.

Here are some examples:

  • Your rate is $250 per hour if the client is invoiced, but if the client establishes a retainer, your rate is reduced to $200 per hour.  [Establishing a retainer triggers the lower hourly rate.]
  • You offer preparation of a complete estate plan at $2,500, due and payable upon completion.  If the client is willing to pay up front before work begins, your flat fee is reduced to $2,000.  [The earned upon receipt fee triggers a $500 savings to the client in return for being paid now.  Remember to comply with earned upon receipt payment rules and get your fee agreement in writing.]
  • You offer 10% off your bill if the client remits payment within 10 days (instead of the usual 30 or more).  [Your early payment discount saves the client money and allows you to collect the outstanding receivable in one-third the usual time.]

There is no magic wand in collections, but a willingness to start over and shake things up can make a difference.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis – 2017.

Ethical Guidelines for Client Files CLE

Join me for a CLE on June 7, 2017 about OSB Formal Ethics Opinions 2016-191 – Client Property: Electronic-Only or “Paperless” Client Documents and 2017-192 – Client Property: Duplication Charges for Client Files, Production or Withholding of Client Files. Learn:

What are lawyers required to produce and when?

  • In some cases, lawyer notes and communications must be produced, in other instances they can be withheld: do you know the difference?
  • If you store data in proprietary law office software (e.g. in a docketing or practice management program), must you extract and convert the data for the client?
  • What circumstance might provoke disclosure of “confidential” information belonging to another client?
  • Can you refuse to deliver file material on the grounds that it is too burdensome or expensive to produce?
  • Is it possible to deliver less than the “entire client file” if the client consents?
  • Are you required to produce work product? Conflict information? Time and expense records? Reports about the client’s creditworthiness? Expert witness information? Metadata? Text messages?

Standards governing retention and storage of client files – Is it ethical to store client files electronically? Do any exceptions apply? What duties does a lawyer have when using electronic-only storage?

When to charge for locating, segregating, or duplicating file material – When you can (and can’t) pass costs on to the client, whether client originals can ever be destroyed, and your ethical responsibilities to the “impecunious client.”

Appreciate the difference between ethical duties and discoverability – The interplay of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct vs. state and federal rules of civil procedure.

Throughout the program “best practice” tips will be shared.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.  This is a live, online webinar. Watch from your desktop computer or mobile device. Connect to audio via telephone or computer/device speakers.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office managers or administrators, staff – anyone interested in learning more about Oregon’s new formal ethics opinions, 2016-191 and 2017-192.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes.  Written materials will be distributed electronically to all registered attendees before the event.

Ask Questions/Participate in Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event.  Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE, click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - Ethical Guidelines for Client Files

MCLE Credits
1.5 Ethics MCLE Credits pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of Ethical Guidelines for Client Files will be available to download along with the program materials following the June 7 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me for more information or visit my CLE on demand store after June 7.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis

Precautions for Paperless Practitioners

Did you happen to notice the new ethics opinion issued in September 2016?  You aren’t alone, but don’t worry.  Let’s get caught up.

ethics-photo

OSB Formal Opinion 2016-191 addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities in keeping paperless client files and disposing of client property.

Everything Old is New Again

Nigh on eight years ago, I gave some advice on this subject:

  • Inform clients of your digital storage practices.  Explain how you will provide documents to current clients in the regular course of business and in the event a former client requests a complete copy of his or her file.
  • Update your fee agreement and engagement letters to reflect your file policies and procedures.
  • Be prepared to provide clients with a copy of their digital file in a format they can access.  [This may mean physically printing the file.]
  • Establish a retention policy for your digital files.
  • Use security measures to protect client records.
  • Take steps to ensure that documents stored electronically cannot be inadvertently modified or destroyed.
  • Backup, backup, backup!
  • Review the Professional Liability Fund (PLF) practice aid, Checklist for Imaging Client Files and Disposing of Original Documents. This checklist has since been renamed Checklist for Scanning Client Files.  It points out that certain papers should not be discarded after scanning. Examples include any document whose authenticity could be disputed, those with particular legal importance, or documents that only have value or enforceability as a piece of paper.  It also admonishes that original client property cannot be destroyed without consent.

See Beverly Michaelis, “Is It Time to Go Paper-Less?” PLF In Brief (February 2009), available on the PLF website.

What Does the Oregon State Bar Say?

OSB Formal Opinion 2016-191 reinforces my earlier advice:

First, there is no ethical prohibition against maintaining the “client file” solely in electronic or paperless form. But this doesn’t mean your ethical duties are thrown out the window.

Lawyers must safeguard client property, maintain confidentiality of information, and ensure availability of electronic file documents. This means:

  • Taking reasonable steps to ensure the security of electronic-only files.
  • Protecting against destruction of original client documents without the client’s express consent.
  • Retaining records for appropriate time periods, including following the completion of the matter or termination of representation.
  • Considering whether an electronic-only file might present a hardship for clients who need to access and work with the documents in paper form.

Lawyers must also communicate with the client regarding the terms of the representation and relevant developments affecting the representation:

  • The opinion suggests entering into reasonable agreements regarding how you will maintain client files during and after the conclusion of a matter. [Yes, please!]
  • You should also confirm that converting your closed paper file to electronic-only documents does not violate the terms of your retention agreement with the client.

If you use cloud-based solutions for storage of electronic-only files, re-read OSB Formal Opinion 2011-188 or see this post.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017.

It feels good to be right.  Chalk one up for me 🙂