Client Bills Should Tell a Story

Once upon a time my lawyer sent me a billing statement I didn’t understand. The only part that wasn’t vague was the amount I owed.

If this is how clients feel about your bill, you’ve got a problem.

Billing statements should be complete, detailed, and accurate. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider:

Billing dos

  • Make the math easy to follow. If you offer early payment discounts, calculate the discount for the client. If the client is required to replenish a retainer account, show how you arrived at the replenishment number.
  • Be clear about due dates and the applicability of late charges or interest.
  • Spend client money carefully. As one writer put it, why are you FedExing correspondence to your expert when trial is six months away? The same can be said of failing to delegate work when it could have been performed just as competently for less money.
  • Put your billing practices into an easy-to-read client pamphlet. It can be on your website, in a brochure, or on a one-page sheet included with your fee agreement.
  • Proofread your bills. Mistakes drive clients crazy and cause them to question your invoice and the quality of your legal work.
  • Follow the additional tips below.

Billing don’ts

  • Don’t bill the client for anything that isn’t included in your (written) fee agreement.
  • Don’t pad your bill.
  • Don’t nickel and dime clients by billing for everyday scanning, copying, faxing, or postage. Allow for reimbursement of extraordinary expenditures by including an exception in your fee agreement, then bill accordingly.
  • Don’t raise client hackles by charging for clerical work.

What to include in your billing descriptions

  • For each billing activity include the person doing the work, the applicable rate, and the date of the activity.
  • Spell out acronyms and abbreviations like UTCR or ORCP.
  • Make your bill easier to read by ditching as much of the legalese as possible.
  • Use dynamic, results-oriented verbs to describe your work: attend, investigate, evaluate, assess, formulate. A thesaurus is your best friend.
  • Write in the present tense.
  • Always include the who, what and why:

Who

To whom did you write the email or make the call? Describe the role of the person involved – clerk of the court, opposing counsel – and include the name if it is meaningful to the client. 

What

“Review documents” is vague. Give detail! What exactly did you review? Discovery produced by the other side in response to a request for production? Say so.

Why

Explain why you took the time to perform the task. Is the trial date around the corner? Are you reviewing documents to respond to a discovery request? Give the specific reason for organizing, reviewing or preparing. This is your opportunity to tell the client that you did something worth “x” dollars and expect to be paid.

Learn more

Learn more about billing practices, collections, and how to talk to clients about money at “Getting Paid,” an online CLE event scheduled for Wednesday, October 2, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. 1.25 OSB MCLE Practical Skills credits approved. Designed for lawyers, legal staff, and office administrators – anyone interested in  improving billing and collection practices. Details available hereRegistration open now!

All Rights Reserved 2019 Beverly Michaelis

Getting Paid October 2, 2019 – CLE Event

Learn how to talk to clients about money, incentivize clients to pay, collect accounts receivable, and modernize billing and payment practices. Join me on Wednesday, October 2 for “Getting Paid.” 1.25 OSB MCLE Practical Skills credits approved. Designed for lawyers, legal staff, and office administrators – anyone interested in  improving billing and collection practices.

Topics include

  • Identifying your fee strategy
  • Ensuring the client is invested in the case
  • Documenting and reinforcing fee discussions
  • Exploring the advantages of automated billing systems
  • Using billing descriptions clients understand
  • Making it easy for clients to pay
  • Sourcing the latest options in credit card processing and click-to-pay invoicing
  • Unbundling services to meet marketplace demands
  • Offering hybrid fee agreements
  • Getting practical about collection

When & Where: Wednesday, October 2 2019 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Pacific Time. This is a live, online webinar.

Group Discounts: Available to firms who wish to register 5 or more attendees. Contact me for more information.

Participate in Polling & Ask Questions: Questions are welcome during the live event. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

How to Register

Click herechoose the image above, or visit the Upcoming CLE page. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the $25 registration price.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings will be available to download along with the program materials shortly after the live program event.  Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store to place an order.

Register Now!

All Rights Reserved 2019 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.