On Demand CLE Store Now Open

If you weren’t able to attend eCourt Malpractice Traps 2017 or one of my other recent CLEs, don’t fret.  On demand CLE is now one click away through Selz.

Visit my online store to download these programs from 2017 and 2016:

OSB accreditation

All programs are current and accredited by the Oregon State Bar.  Visit the online store for details.

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

Digital files are delivered instantly at checkout.  Download, stream, save to your Dropbox account, or send files to your Kindle.

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.

Ethical Guidelines for Client Files – Live CLE June 7, 2017

If you can’t attend Ethical Guidelines for Client Files live on June 7, it will be available to download from the online store on June 8.

Passing on Credit Card Surcharges to Clients

The Back Story

In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York approved a Class Settlement among merchants, Visa, MasterCard, and other defendants.  Allegedly, the defendants conspired to collect excessive “surcharges,” also called merchant fees, transaction fees, or convenience fees.

The class action litigation was drawn out over 8 years and involved 400 depositions, 80 million pages of documents, 17 expert reports, and 32 days of expert deposition testimony.

On September 28, 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing regarding an appeal of the settlement. The matter has now been submitted to the Court for decision. It is not known when the Second Circuit will issue its decision.

Why should Oregon lawyers care about the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement?

Because it’s all about the money.  Or more precisely, the cost of getting paid.

Can Law Firms Pass On Credit Card Surcharges?

Some lawyers are taking the position that the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement permits them to pass on credit card surcharges to clients.

Depending on the situation, these fees can add up to real money:

  • Jane Client owes her law firm $7,000.  A fan of frequent flyer miles and other perks, she charges her legal bill to her Visa card.  Surcharge to the firm: $210.* Net amount collected by the firm: $6,790.
    If the firm has five “Jane’s” in a month, it ends up losing over $1,000 in billed fees.
  • Corporate client Oregon, Inc. informs its law firm that henceforth it will pay only by credit card.  A typical monthly invoice for Oregon, Inc. is $10,000.  Over a 12 month span, the law firm will eat $3,600 or more in legal fees – the cost of absorbing surcharges each time Oregon, Inc. pays its bill by credit card.*  Bottom line: taking credit cards isn’t cheap.

You Might Say a $10,000 Client Payment is a Good Problem to Have

Agreed.  It may not be easy to sympathize with or relate to either of these scenarios. But most lawyers do take credit cards, and by year-end the surcharge fees add up.

What to do?

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m an advocate of building the cost of taking credit cards into your fee – what you charge for services.  This continues to be a valid approach for the following reasons:

  • 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.
  • Passing on surcharges is unpopular.  Clients don’t like to be “nickel and dimed” to death.
  • 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.
  • Legally, there are more than a few barriers.

Legal Implications of Passing on Surcharges

A bit of research reveals that passing on surcharges may be acceptable under the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlementprovided you:

  1. Inform Visa and MasterCard before you begin surcharging.
  2. Show the surcharge as a separate item on all transaction receipts.
  3. Display prominent signage at checkout advertising surcharge fees.
  4. Apply surcharges only to credit card purchases – you cannot legally add a surcharge to a pre-paid card or debit card (even if you run it as a credit card transaction).
  5. Limit surcharges to transactions in the domestic United States and US territories.
  6. Verify surcharges are not prohibited by state law.
  7. Assess no surcharges to clients using American Express or Discover, as they are not part of the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement.

How Do These Requirements Translate to the Legal Profession?

Good question!  Assuming the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement gives you the right to begin surcharging:

  • Step two might require you to change your credit card processing practices. When a card is swiped, a receipt is generated.  Assuming it shows the surcharge as a separate item, and you provide the receipt to the client, you have complied with this step.  But what about “card not present” transactions where the card is not available to swipe?  These are far more common in a law firm. Do you currently email a contemporaneous receipt?  Maybe you should.  Will you list surcharges as a separate line item on billing statements?  Maybe you should do that too.
  • Step three may mean displaying a sign in your office, drawing prominent attention to the fees in your written fee agreement, including information on your intake form, discussing surcharges during the initial client interview, etc.
  • Step six would require vigilance when working with out-of-state clients. Surcharges are illegal in California and nine other states. Some predict this number will grow.

Can I Do it or Not?

I can’t give you the unequivocal green light.

While some law firms are surcharging now, please remember the settlement is under appeal.

Additionally, consider this comment in OSB Legal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-172:

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).

While the language is “may implicate Regulation Z,” the safe harbor has always been to assume the Truth in Lending Act applies to these transactions.  [The Ethics Committee added this substantive law caveat to alert practitioners to the possibility.]

I’ve read the Orders and other documents posted at the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement in an effort to wrap my head around this.  I’ve never seen any source that fully reconciles the issues in the class action with the requirements set out in Regulation Z – not that I’m an expert.

Assuming the appeal doesn’t upset the apple cart, my suggestions on how the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement would translate to lawyers are only best guesses. There is no authoritative source to guide us on applying point-of-sale retail transaction requirements to a law firm setting.  For example, how does a law firm “display prominent signage at checkout?”

Proceed at Your Own Risk

If you want to assess surcharges, do your own substantive legal research and proceed at your own risk.  Before taking the plunge, consider these words of wisdom from LawPay, a popular credit card processor serving the legal profession:

Many law firms simply build the additional cost [of accepting credit cards] into their fees as a standard business expense. This is generally recommended as the proper and more professional way to handle the business expense of processing payments.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

*Based on a surcharge of 3% per transaction – transaction rates vary.

Doubling Down on Your Bill When the Client Doesn’t Pay

 

We’ve all been there.  Non-paying clients can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you went out of your way to offer a reduced rate or special payment plan.  But before you resort to punitive measures, take a moment to think it through.

  • A literal doubling of your fee is likely to be challenged as excessive.  Review Oregon RPC 1.5.
  • Consider whether the proposed punitive action will make a difference.  Do you truly believe that doubling your fee will motivate the client to pay?
  • Collections can be a landmine of legal traps and pitfalls.

What Should You Do If the Client Doesn’t Pay?

In the case of non-paying clients, it may be appropriate and necessary to withdraw. If so, take care to abide by your ethical responsibilities.  If you represent the client before a tribunal and must file a formal Motion to Withdraw, read and understand Oregon Formal Opinion No. 2011-185 – Withdrawal from Litigation: Client Confidences.  If you have any doubt about what you can or cannot tell the court, seek advice from the Oregon State Bar General Counsel’s office or contact a lawyer colleague who specializes in ethics defense.

You should also consider ordering one (or more) of the free CLEs offered by the PLF on managing law firm finances:

  • 50 Shades of Green: Building a Profitable Solo or Small Firm Practice
  • Building and Maintaining a Profitable and Efficient Law Practice 
  • Increasing Revenue: Updated Strategies for Attracting New Clients and More Effectively Managing an Existing Client Base 
  • Money Matters 

These CLEs will help you to:

  • Banish personal habits that cause you to under earn
  • Identify profitable practice areas
  • Analyze overhead, liquidity ratios, budget, turnover, and realization rates
  • Establish effective billing practices
  • Reduce accounts receivable
  • Develop case and client selection skills to eliminate payment problems

Visit the PLF Website for details.  Select CLE > Past CLE.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

 

Are you eCourt Ready?

Clickhere_medFLT_490x250On December 1, 2014, eCourt will become mandatory for the eleven circuit courts that currently have the Oregon eCourt system, including the eFiling requirement.  Follow these steps to get ready for the mandatory transition:

  1. Get a credit or debit card that can be used to pay court fees online.  The Odyssey eFile & Serve System (eCourt) accepts Visa, MasterCard, and Discover.  Learn more about eCourt filing fees here.
  2. Create an eCourt account by registering with Odyssey eFile & ServeDon’t wait, do it now.  If you need assistance setting up your account, it may be difficult to reach Technical Support on the December 1 effective date. Registration is only a few steps.  Choose an account type, enter your name, contact information, and e-mail address, then create a password.  Sole practitioners should register as a “Firm Administrator.”
  3. Check your e-mail inbox for an activation link from Tylerhost.net – the vendor that operates Odyssey eFile & Serve for Oregon.  Click on the activation link to finish creating your account.
  4. Login to Odyssey eFile & Serve with your e-mail address and newly created password, click on the Firm Administrator tab, and set up a payment account (credit card).  [Note: if you are a firm member who created an individual user account this step was completed by your Firm Administrator.]
  5. Check your “tech.” To be an e-filer, lawyers will need a scanner and PDF conversion software with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) capability.  More on this below.
  6. Sign up for one of the free, one-hour training sessions on how to use Odyssey eFile & Serve.  There are three classes this week and additional classes scheduled for December.  See the complete class listing here. During the training you can ask questions.  If desired, take the training more than once.
  7. Watch the Oregon eCourt Update CLE presented on November 19, 2014 – available for Oregon lawyers to stream or download free of charge on the Professional Liability Fund (PLF) website.  This CLE provides an overview of the rules and includes a question and answer session with Oregon Judicial Department staff.
  8. Read Chapter 21 of the Uniform Trial Court Rules – Filing and Service by Electronic Means – and the Chief Justice Orders adopting out-of-cycle amendments.
  9. Get an OJCIN Account (Oregon Judicial Case Information Network).  OJCIN is the official website of Register of Actions and judgment records for the State of Oregon Judicial Department. OJCIN includes OJIN (Oregon Judicial Information Network), OECI (Oregon eCourt Case Information Network), and ACMS (Appellate Case Management System).  If you want to view case activity and access documents online, you must have an OJCIN account. ($35.00 per month.)
  10. Monitor the Oregon State Bar (OSB) and PLF websites.  Using the discussion from the Oregon eCourt Update CLE, OSB staff are preparing answers to frequently asked eCourt questions that will be posted in the near future.  This information will also be accessible on the PLF website.

Buying a Scanner 

Mac users can search for “top rated scanners” at MacWorld. If you have Windows OS, check out the online reviews at PC Magazine.  The Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 was voted the best scanner of the year in 2013 by MacWorld and comes bundled with Acrobat XI Standard for Windows.  (You can – and should – upgrade to Acrobat XI Pro for a few more bucks.  See below.)

Brother scanners are popular too.  A “combo” machine – combination printer/scanner/copier may also be a good choice depending on your needs.  Check the sources listed above for product reviews.

When you’ve chosen a scanner make and model, use sites or apps like PriceGrabber and Google Shopper to find the best prices. Include shipping costs for the best head-to-head comparison.

PDF Conversion Software with OCR Capability

All documents submitted via the eCourt system must be text searchable PDFs.  PDF conversion software with OCR capability (Optical Character Recognition) turns your scanned documents into text searchable PDFs.  The free Adobe Reader software cannot do this.

For PDF conversion software, nothing beats Adobe Acrobat XI in this author’s opinion.  (Get the “Pro” version for the redaction features.)  While it may seem that you have no choice but to subscribe to Acrobat on a monthly basis, you can still purchase the product outright. Call sales at 800-585-0774 for details.  My two cents:  Buy the subscription.  Adobe is running a 25% off sale through December 3.  A subscription to Acrobat XI Pro is $14.99 per month (normally $19.99).  Subscriptions are locked in for one year and include all upgrades free of charge plus free telephone support.  If you purchase Acrobat XI Pro outright, you must buy the upgrades separately.  Free telephone support ends in 30 days, although other support options remain available.

PrimoPDF and Nuance Power PDF Advanced are worth a look too, but don’t have all the bells and whistles of Acrobat.

Using Your Scanner and PDF Conversion Software with OCR Capability

Use your scanner and PDF/OCR software to:

  • Create searchable PDFs of your pleading documents for eFiling.
  • Create searchable PDFs of attachments to pleading documents (e.g., a scanned copy of a Last Will and Testament attached to a petition for probate – a copy of the Will is eFiled with the petition; the original Will must be filed conventionally).
  • Create searchable PDFs of signature pages or signed documents.  (Text on the page will be searchable; signatures will not.)

Note:  Lawyers sign eCourt documents using a conformed signature: /s/ Lawyer Name.  If you are eFiling a document containing signatures other than your own, you must scan the signature page or the entire document.

Master the Tech and Make Your Life Easier

  • If you aren’t already using a version of Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice with built-in PDF conversion, upgrade now.
  • When you convert to PDF directly from within Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice your document is automatically text searchable.  No need to scan.
  • Always choose File > Print > to create a PDF from your word processing program.  Select File > Print, find the PDF printer in your printer list (Adobe PDF for example), click Print, give your document a name, and save it in the desired location.  When you create a PDF by selecting File > Save As > PDF or File > Publish to PDF, you are converting all the metadata in your document.  Additionally, files that are “published” to PDF are about 80% larger than documents that are “printed” to PDF.
  • Digital pleading templates are the way to go.  If you are printing the body of your document on numbered pleading paper, you will need to scan and OCR your documents for eFiling.  If you aren’t familiar with digital pleading templates, check out these options from Microsoft.  [Note: conform all templates to meet Oregon court rules.]

Troubleshooting

Don’t struggle on your own!  Call Odyssey eFile & Serve free technical support at 1.800.297.5377, Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central Time.  Tech support can help with the following issues:

  • Browser error messages
  • Registering with Odyssey eFile & Serve
  • Setting up payment accounts / payment account troubleshooting
  • How to initiate a filing
  • How to file a document into an existing case
  • How to eServe parties

Use the Knowledge Base

You can find quite a bit of useful information in the Odyssey eFile & Serve Knowledge Base, which is divided into these categories: Administration, Court Contact, eFiling, eService, Notifications, and Support and Training.

Under Administration, learn about attorney management, fees, firm information, passwords, payment accounts, reconciliation, registration, and user management.  Under Court Contact find telephone numbers and other contact information for Multnomah, Yamhill, Crook, and Clatsop County Circuit Courts.  eFiling provides information on the active locations for eCourt, describes the filing process, document status, and how to create templates in the eFiling workspace.  Under eService read answers to commonly asked questions, such as where do I find proof of service for a filing I submitted?  (Also see Notifications.)  Access the Knowledge Base here.  Look for this sidebar on the left side of your screen:

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[All Rights Reserved – 2014 – Beverly Michaelis]