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

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.