Best Practices – eService, Workflow, Trust Accounting and Beyond

From office system best practices to eService and advanced trust accounting – CLE offerings covered a wide array of topics this year. If you missed a program, don’t despair. Video and audio recordings are available to download from my online store.  Here are the details:

Best Practices for Client Intake, Engagement & Workflow
OSB Program No.: 6724*9 (1.0 PS/general MCLE credits)

Recognizing the objectives and ethical traps of client intake, implementing the 7 key elements of intake forms, automating intake with ease, documenting representation, modernizing the engagement process using forms, brochures, automation, and eSignatures, using technology and staffing to improve workflow, and more.

Best Practices for Docketing, Conflicts, Disengagement & File Retention
OSB Program No.: 6724*10 (1.0 PS/general MCLE credits)

Represent clients effectively and ethically by applying best practice recommendations for docketing, conflicts, disengagement, and file retention. Includes docketing tips for eCourt practitioners, streamlining conflict checking, limiting liability exposure through proper disengagement, simplifying disengagement, and creating file retention policies, procedures, and checklists.

Oregon eService
OSB Program No.: 6724*11 (1.25 PS/general MCLE credits)

For experts and novices alike – an opportunity to polish eService/eCourt skills and apply tips straight from the courthouse – or understand eService from the ground up. Includes how to eServe in four easy steps, six compelling reasons to use eService, identifying eService exceptions, responding to service contact issues, pursuing sanctions under UTCR 1.090(2), eService vs. service by email, courthouse dos and don’ts, and proper Certificates of Service.

Trust Accounting Fundamentals
OSB Program No.: 6724*12 (1.5 ethics MCLE credits)

From managing bank charges and avoiding impermissible cushions to reporting overdrafts and addressing client fee disputes – this program will provide a fundamental understanding of how to operate your lawyer trust account.

Advanced Trust Accounting
OSB Program No.: 6724*13 – 1.25 ethics MCLE credits

Delve deeper into the more advanced issues of trust accounting, including how to safely manage wire and EFT transfers, using layaway payment plans, collecting “first and last month’s rent,” managing evergreen retainers and hybrid fee agreements, receiving third party payments, bartering legal services, passing on credit card transaction fees, what to do with unclaimed funds, responding to garnishments and liens, how to disburse settlement proceeds if your client is missing, and more.

Your on demand CLE purchase includes

  • MP4 download (combined audio and video file)
  • M4a download (audio only)
  • Written program materials, including presentation slides and resources
  • Answers to polling questions asked during the live CLE
  • MCLE Form 6 for self-reporting of MCLE credits

Instant digital delivery with options to save to the cloud or your mobile device

Links to digital files are delivered instantly at checkout with your purchase confirmation email.  Download, stream, save to your Dropbox account, or send files to your mobile device or desktop computer.

Free eBook!

If you visit my online store, be sure to download your free copy of Tips for Improving Client Relationships.

Secure payment processing

All transactions are handled by Selz and protected with industry standard security, including encryption and SSL secure. The Selz platform is also PCI compliant. Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover accepted.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

An Oldie and a Goodie: Empowering Law Practice Management Tips

Whilst strolling through the Internet one day, I came across this post by Peggy Gruenke at Attorney at Work. Twenty simple ideas that are timeless and critically important if you want your law firm to succeed. Here are a few of my financial-themed favorites with thoughts of my own.

Peggy’s five financial tips – greatly condensed

  • Write a business plan
  • Create a budget
  • Know your overhead costs
  • State your fee with authority
  • Bill early, often, and strategically

Money and goals

As the business owner, your goal is to see the big picture.  Who are you? Why are you unique? Who are you best equipped to serve? This is the purpose of a business plan, according to Peggy Gruenke.

My input? Don’t be intimated! Your business plan does not have to be a magnum opus. You can get it done in a few pages. Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

Want help? See my business plan checklist – originally designed for law students, but easily conformed to active law practices.

Budgeting and costs

Budgeting can be as simple as a basic spreadsheet. Track what comes in and what goes out. Don’t bother with incorporating prior years (unless you have a driving reason to do so). Just start now. Toward year-end use your 2018 data to create projections for 2019.

As Peggy says, “You should know (by heart) how much money you need to make to keep the doors open.”

To get started, revisit this article by yours truly, Dee Crocker and Sheila Blackford.  As motivation, consider this excerpt:

Every law office should have a budget. Without one, it’s easy to overspend and hard to plan for future purchases. Knowing your overhead costs will help you decide how much revenue you need to make and how much you need to charge to bring in that amount. Failure to budget can cause financial problems. Lawyers with financial problems may take on new clients who have money in hand, leaving the work for existing clients unfinished. This can lead to disciplinary complaints from clients whose work is not completed.

I guarantee that your monthly “budget to actual” report, which compares actual spending against budget projections, will become your new best friend.

Stating your fee with authority

When a prospective client tells you that Lawyer Smith is willing to do the same work for $2,000 less, tell the person kindly that he can then retain Lawyer Smith. When you reduce your fee, you will have lost the trust of your prospective client. Odds are, in time, that client will leave Lawyer Smith and retain you to handle the mess that Lawyer Smith made.

Set a fee and stick to it! I know this can be hard, especially if you’re new to solo practice. Know in advance what you propose to charge, don’t make it up on the fly. Be matter-of-fact, business-like, and deliver the number without hesitation. You’re always free to make adjustments with the next case, but don’t waiver with the client sitting in front of you. For help in getting started, see this post.

Bill early and often

When you are ready to bill, issue invoices as soon after the event as possible: “As each day passes after an event, the perception of your value is diminished. If you send out the bill even two weeks afterward, the client won’t perceive the value to be as high.” (Peggy’s words of wisdom.)

There is no reason you can’t deliver your final bill with transactional documents. Take advantage of the arc of client gratitude while it is still in your favor!

Looking for more billing tips? Check out this resource.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Credit Card Surcharges Revisited

Remember the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement?

Processing credit card payments is a fact of life for today’s law firm. So are costly surcharges – the fee assessed by your bank or credit card processor for the privilege of accepting this form of payment.

In 2015 – 2016, some Oregon law firms took the position that the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement (PCIFS) permitted them to pass on credit card surcharges to clients.  As a reminder, the PCIFS was a class action settlement among merchants, Visa, MasterCard, and other defendants. American Express and Discover were not part of the litigation.  Applying the conditions of the settlement to a service-based industry like the legal profession was always tenuous at best.

Regardless, using the PCIFS as a justification for passing on credit card surcharges became moot in mid-2016 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded approval of the settlement.

The Post-PCIFS Era

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m an ardent advocate of absorbing credit card surcharges as a cost of doing business. This doesn’t mean watching money fly out the door without recourse.  It does mean you shouldn’t pass on surcharges as a separate cost item to the client.  Consider:

  • Assessing surcharges (or crediting clients for the net amount less fees) involves extra administrative and bookkeeping steps.  If you get the math wrong and the transaction involves trust account funds, you could face disciplinary action.
  • Firms who want to charge for credit cards often bill clients for postage, faxing, scanning, and photocopying.  These items already rate high on the client annoyance scale.  Pass on surcharges and that scale may tip.
  • Ethically, clients are not obliged to pay any cost to which they did not agree.  If you did not include the right to assess surcharges in your fee agreement, you cannot unilaterally pass on the cost after the fact.  Granted, you can fix this by modifying your fee agreement – but it isn’t necessarily advisable and may not be successful.  See OSB Formal Opinion 2005-97.
  • Fees can be adjusted to reflect this, and other, costs of doing business.
  • Surcharges are outright illegal in some states and capped in others.
  • Passing on surcharges may trigger compliance with Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act:

Passing the merchant fee on to the client or crediting the client for the net amount of the transaction only … may implicate Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act, 12 CFR §226.  As a result, you may be compelled to offer cash discounts to all clients and make specified disclosures to your clients who pay by credit card.  See CONSUMER LAW IN OREGON ch 14 (Oregon CLE 1996 & Supp 2000).  OSB Legal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-172.

As Before: Proceed at Your Own Risk

If you want to assess surcharges, do your own research and proceed at your own risk.

I leave you with these words of wisdom from LawPay, a popular credit card processor serving the legal profession:

While your state may allow you to pass on transaction fees to clients, think carefully before doing so. Potential clients will not expect a higher fee simply because they use a different form of payment. In today’s market the best practice may be to simply absorb these fees yourself as the cost of doing business.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

The Importance of Following Up

Today’s post is inspired by Ben Schorr, technologist and senior content developer with Microsoft, who has “been in this business long enough to remember when Al Gore invented the Internet.”

Being the all-around smart guy that he is, Ben recently posted:

Follow-up is one of the most important skills you can have in business.

Ben couldn’t be more right, and let me tell you why.

Clients

When is the last time you checked in with your clients? Asked how they are faring? Provided them with a status update?

Nothing is more aggravating to clients (and more damaging to client relations) than failing to follow-up. Avoid this trap by establishing an office system that reminds you to reach out and make contact.  It can be as simple as a tickler system or reminder app. Consider the advantages of interactive web portals that offer clients 24/7 access and apps like Zipwhip that let you send scheduled texts and auto-replies to clients.  Are phones overwhelming you? Worried about missing client calls? Start using Call Ruby. (Discounts are available to Multnomah Bar Association members.)

Tasks and Deadlines

Always create follow-up reminders for all outstanding to-dos and deadlines – particularly those that require action from someone else.

  • Include everything to ensure you get what you need to complete tasks on time and avoid a potential malpractice claim.
  • Include everyone who owes you information, documents, or an undertaking. Clients, co-counsel, opposing counsel, associates, staff, medical providers, investigators, and process servers are the tip of the iceberg.

Staff

Staff also deserve follow-up. Brief weekly meetings can cover a lot of ground: staff workloads, pending projects, your schedule, and responding to staff questions. For tips on working with and delegating to staff, see Revisiting Smart Delegation.

Finances

It’s been almost 7 years since I penned Accounts Receivable Do Not Improve Like Fine Wine, but the advice has not changed. You simply must follow-up on your finances:

Marketing and Business Goals

Follow-up is key when it comes to goal setting. Start by quantifying what you want to achieve, then be accountable (that’s the follow-up part). Whether it’s a business plan or a marketing plan, you are only cheating yourself if you don’t take the time to measure your results.

I’ve written extensively about marketing this year and prior years, both incidentally and deliberately.  If you’re looking for social media tips, resources for market research, how to calculate your marketing costs per case – you’ll find those posts here.  Use the Search feature at the top of my blog or under Categories choose “Marketing.” Whatever you do: follow-up!

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis