Bill confidently, even in tough times

Published on: 

A question recently sent to me has particular resonance for lawyers at any time, but especially today when the news is full of stories about an impending economic slowdown:

"At what point in your career do you decide that your bill is what it is, without feeling that you need to be defensive about it or to write it down?"

No matter what the economic conditions are, this question goes to the heart of what it means to be a lawyer. Lawyers help people's lives improve.

Our objective should be to provide and account for our services in such a way that clients understand and accept the value as well as the cost of what we do. When that happens, fees are not an issue and lawyers do not have to apologize for what they charge.

With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to recap some ideas that I have been writing about in these columns since they began more than two years ago. The lawyer who follows them when billing a client can bill confidently and have every expectation of being paid.

  • Get an engagement letter

    Specify your fees and payment terms in writing. Before undertaking a matter engagement, you should have clients' written agreement regarding the fee to be charged and how it will be calculated, when the fee is to be paid and the consequences of non-payment.

  • Prepare a budget before beginning work on a matter

    Creating a budget shows clients that you are sensitive to their needs and reinforces that you are providing a service of value and not just a block of hourly time.

  • Document that your fee is reasonable

    That means making sure the client knows you have the skill and experience to justify the fee and that it is competitive with others in your geographic and practice areas. You must know the current market conditions and the competitive pressures on legal fees.

  • Be wary of ancillary charges

    Some lawyers charge their clients for "opening" a file on each matter; others charge for photocopying the file before giving it to the client when requested. These are legitimate charges to clients if they are specified in the retainer agreement. But if your competitors do not make such charges, or if your client resents being "nickel and dimed," it can create negative feelings toward your bill.

  • Don't discount your fee

    If you face client price-cutting pressure, meet it either by taking services off the table or by requesting a quid pro quo — such as a guaranteed amount of work in exchange for a volume discount on that work.

  • Communicate regularly with your clients

    Don't wait for them to ask you; send them copies of all relevant documents about them that come into the office, or provide status reports on a regular basis. Demonstrating to clients what you've done for them is the best way to be confident when you bill for it.

This Coach’s Corner Article is listed under the following categories: