Get Your Financial House in Order Now

thFor the last few years I’ve shared an
annual tradition with you: getting financial records organized for year-end.

This entails gathering up receipts, identifying deductible expenses, updating your accounts, running reports, and possibly pre-paying some 2017 bills.  Whew!

Fight the Urge to Procrastinate

With all the responsibilities that vie for our attention this time of year, it’s easy to push aside the task of gathering, organizing, and updating financial records.  Don’t succumb!

Getting organized for year-end is an absolute necessity – especially for the sole practitioner.

Step 1: Get Started

If needed, begin with a little background reading from the experts:

General Tips on Tax Preparation

Tax Deductions FOR SOLOS AND HOME-BASED LAW PRACTICES

Step 2: Learn How to Organize Tax Records

Step 3:  Begin the Process by Chipping Away at Organization and Prep

I don’t recommend a marathon session of tax organization and prep.  The only time it makes sense to do this is if you’ve procrastinated and you’re up against a filing deadline. The point here is to avoid that.  It’s too stressful!  And as we all know: when you’re up against a deadline the odds of making a mistake rise exponentially.  Let’s not go there.

Instead, open your calendar and schedule some dates to start gathering and organizing records.  30 or 60 minute appointments will allow you to chip away and make progress:

First appointment

Assuming your accounts are reasonably up to date (income and expense entries are current), do a quick check. Does it make sense to pre-pay 2017 expenses [bar dues, professional liability coverage, rent] or contribute to your IRA/retirement fund? Make this assessment early to take advantage of 2016 deductions.

Second appointment

Prepare to organize your records.  Physically gather receipts.  If necessary, schedule follow-up appointments to finish the process.  If your records are digital, use this time to pull all receipts into one 2016 expense folder.  If you have unscanned receipts, catch up on your scanning.

Third appointment

If you are paper-based, label a manila envelope “Personal Expenses.” Start sorting your paper receipts.  For now, anything that is a personal expense goes into the “Personal Expenses” envelope to be dealt with later.  If your records are digital, create a file folder labeled “2016 Personal Expenses” and segregate personal receipts.  Once you’ve achieved this basic separation, start organizing your business expenses.  This can be done a variety of ways – see the reading above.  While date order is good, it is preferable to sort by expense category first, then by date.  If necessary, schedule follow-up appointments to finish the process.

Future appointments

You get the drift. Even the most robust procrastinator can generally commit to increments of 30 or 60 minute appointments.  Keep moving.  Anything you do helps advance the cause.

Step 4: Jumping Ahead to the CPA

If you already work with a CPA, hallelujah!  If your CPA is like mine, he or she will automatically send you a tax organization packet, which will go a long way toward helping with the steps above.

You Do your own taxes?

I know some of you are stubbornly independent, as I once was, and you prepare your own taxes, as I once did.  Please: at least contact a CPA for a ballpark estimate of what it would cost to delegate this task.  What can it hurt?  You can still prepare your own taxes if you prefer.

But my taxes are simple!

Kudos! Guess what?  The cost to prepare your return will be nominal.  If your taxes are complex, anything you pay a CPA will be well worth it.

I have used CPAs for business, personal, and trust-related tax preparation and have never been sorry I did.  The prep work is enough for me!  Try it at least once and see what you think.  I’ll bet you free admission to one of my future CLEs that you won’t go back to doing your own tax returns.  Select the Contact page on the menu above to take me up on this offer.

A Quick Thought About Apps

The tech-savvy among may you may be curious about apps, so here are two suggestions: 7 of the Best Apps to Scan, Track, & Manage Receipts and Best Free Finance Apps for the iPhone and iPad.  (The latter is my list of favorites.)

Parting Thoughts

Get started now by scheduling those appointments on your calendar!  I promise you that doing a bit here and there makes the process less overwhelming.  Good luck!

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2016]

The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

Does this scenario sound familiar?

On November 1 you meet with Jane Client.  You have a good feeling about Jane and her case.  She is definitely someone you want to represent.  After the meeting, you send Jane a standard fee agreement/engagement letter.  You tell Jane that you will need documents and additional information to proceed.  You also explain that Jane must establish a retainer of $2500 before you begin work on her case.  On November 3, Jane sends you an email with the required documents.  Four days later, she provides the additional information you requested.  On November 8 you and Jane speak over the phone. On November 10 Jane sends you a check for $2500.

Clients Like Jane are Tempting…

Jane is a very appealing client.  You have good rapport and confidence in her case. She is cooperative, responsive, and paid your retainer.  So what’s not to like?  If you proceed to represent Jane (or let’s be honest: if you continue representing Jane), you do so under substantial risk.  How can that be?  Let’s explore some of the issues that come to mind:

The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

  • No enforceable written contract.  I wouldn’t want to be without one.  I’m not saying all hope is lost collection-wise, but you certainly have a far tougher row to hoe without the client’s signature on a written agreement.  Fee agreements should always be in writing, countersigned by the client, regardless of the practice area.
  • No proof of scope of representation.  This could lead to several problems: demands by the client that you provide additional, unintended services; liability exposure for unanticipated (but arguably related) services; or inability to withdraw as attorney of record before an agency or tribunal.
  • Voidable fees in contingent cases.  ORS 20.340(1)(a) provides that all contingent fee agreements “shall be written in plain and simple language reasonably believed to be understandable by the plaintiff.”  In addition, a model explanation of the contingent fee agreement is required.  ORS 20.340(1)(b).  “Any contingent fee agreement entered into on or after September 26, 1987, that does not comply with the requirements of subsection (1) of this section is voidable. [Formerly 9.400]”
  • Ethics complaints related to flat or fixed fees paid in advance.  Oregon RPC 1.15 and 1.5, together with Oregon Formal Opinion 2005-151, describe a specific set of conditions for “earned upon receipt fees,” the most basic of which is that such arrangements must be in writing.  No exceptions.

Fixing the Problem

Since Jane is otherwise an ideal client it should be easy to pick the phone and have a conversation about the necessity of signing and returning your fee agreement and engagement letter. It is possible she simply overlooked your paperwork.  You may also learn that your fee agreement or engagement letter is too long or too complicated.

  1. If you are asking the client to sign an “earned upon receipt” fee agreement after the fact, consult with private ethics counsel or contact OSB General Counsel before proceeding: “Without a clear written agreement between a lawyer and a client that fees paid in advance are earned on receipt, such funds must be considered client property and are, therefore, afforded the protections imposed by Oregon RPC 1.15-1. In re Biggs, 318 Or at 293 (discussing former DR 9-101). If there is a written agreement with the client that complies with the requirements of Oregon RPC 1.5(c)(3), the funds belong to the lawyer and may not be put in the lawyer’s client trust account. If no such agreement exists, the funds must be placed into the trust account and can only be withdrawn as earned. See, e.g., In re Hedges, 313 Or at 623–24; OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-149.” OSB Formal Opinion 2005-151.
  2. Going forward, streamline your engagement/fee agreement procedure.
    1. Give the client a heads-up about the importance of signing and returning your agreement/engagement letter during the client meeting.  Let the client know to expect the letter, what it will say, and why it must be signed before you can proceed.  Encourage clients to call with any questions or concerns.
    2. Consider presenting the fee agreement or engagement letter to the client as part of the client meeting [not my personal favorite, but it is an option] – or – experiment with eSigning.  Services like DocuSign are simple, easy, and secure.  Another option?  A click-wrap agreement.
    3. If you use surface mail, consider enclosing a stamped, self-addressed return envelope).  Be sure to include an extra copy of the agreement for the client’s records.
    4. Set a date to follow-up with the client about returning your agreement and enter the follow-up date in your calendaring system.  If the agreement is not returned by the date specified, contact the client.
    5. Solicit client feedback about other changes you can make to improve return of signed fee agreements and engagement letters.

Make it Easier for You and the Client

Clients want agreements that are short, simple, and understandable.  This presents a challenge because we are tempted to cover every contingency in great detail. Odds are your fee agreement has room for improvement when it comes to use of Plain English, and room to spare when it comes to verbosity.

Consider this option:  Instead of devoting a page of your fee agreement to the subject of billing, enclose a separate one page bullet list of “Billing Practices” describing when/where/how you bill. While technically a “cheat” (you just added another page), it will shorten the actual agreement while giving the client the information they need in a more understandable format.

Or if you prefer not to add another physical page, send the client a link to the billing practices section of your website.  (Which can be a stand-alone page not visible in your navigation menu.)

This concept – enclosing a bullet list or providing a link to content on your website – can be applied to other issues covered in a typical fee agreement/engagement letter. Using this approach should not jeopardize the viability of your contract or collection of accounts if you use language that incorporates the referenced practices as part of your agreement.  Be sure to use effective dates on any enclosures or web pages and retain links to archived firm policies or procedures. If you choose to transition content in this manner, do you own research on enforceability/viability.

Final Thoughts: Learn More!

Learn more about fee agreements at the upcoming CLE, “Fee Agreements – Ethical Dos and Don’ts,” on January 18, 2017.  Start the new year off right!

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]