Client billing falls into the “red zone.” It’s a place where relationships come to die. If there’s going to be lawyer/client conflict, it surfaces moments after opening the bill.
There are ways to head off the conflict. It can be done. In fact, you’re doing it with some of your clients. Ideally, you can keep them all from reacting negatively to your invoices. It’s possible.
Here are my 13 billing tips that keep clients happy:
1. Give it to them for free.
You weren’t going to bill them for it anyway. Go ahead and put it on the bill and mark it “no charge.” Think about the things you do now for which you don’t bill. Are you billing for “rush service?” If not, then put it on the bill and no charge it. Are you billing for organizing their file? If not, put it on the bill and no charge it. Provide details for everything and then mark the free stuff as free.
2. Raise your rate.
Give them even more for free. Do it by raising the rate (the impact of which is rarely understood anyway) and then give them more service for free. Use “no charge” even more often after building it into the rate. For example, increase your rate by 10% and then mark 10% of your charges as “no charge.” Suddenly, you’re no longer the robber baron; you’re the great guy. See how I did that?
3. Discuss it before you spend it.
Don’t run up charges they don’t know are coming. Talk to them before you notice that deposition. Talk to them before you file the motion. Give them fair warning.
4. Send bills.
Seriously, are you waiting three months to send a bill? Are you letting the billing process back up and grind to a halt? Are you then acting surprised when a client is upset by the amount of the bill? If you’re procrastinating about billing, then the upset is entirely predictable.
5. Send bills more often.
Are you locked into monthly billing? Why? Why not send bills weekly, daily, or hourly? What do your clients want? Can you make the info available in real time? It’s the surprise of the bill that stings the most. Eliminate the surprise.
6. Don’t charge to fix your mistake.
When you screw up, let them know you’re fixing it at no charge. Be sure to itemize the repair on the bill and show it as “no charge.”
7. Get the money in advance.
Clients making decisions about a fee before they owe it are happier than clients hit with a bill after the fact. Collect the money now, before you do the work, and put it in trust. You’ll be glad you did.
8. Call them about a high bill.
Call them about the bill and explain it (and don’t charge for the call). What’s a high bill? Probably most of your bills. You need to be calling about money—a lot.
9. Explain why it matters.
Don’t simply indicate “Telephone conference with opposing counsel.” Go further. Provide details and explanation: “Telephone conference with opposing counsel to detail documents required at deposition so we can prove opposing party was hiding assets.”
10. Use emotional language.
Don’t be afraid to provide some editorial commentary in the bill. Instead of, again, “Telephone conference with opposing counsel,” go with “Telephone conference with very aggravating opposing counsel who’s doing everything he can to avoid complying with the rules of production in order to assist his sleazy client in hiding assets required by my client to survive.” Yes, it might show up at a hearing. The judge will snicker just like you just did.
11. Don’t charge for trivia.
Roll the postage, copies, and other trivial charges up into your hourly rate. Stop billing for all the extras. It drives clients crazy, and it’s often a waste of your administrative resources.
12. Spend money on the problem.
How much are you losing to bad billing and collection practices? It’s often substantial. Do you need better software? Do you need help? It really adds up when you exceed the trust deposit and create a receivable. Those receivables often go unpaid. Paying an employee or a virtual assistant to monitor the situation is often justified if you’ve determined that you can’t do it on your own. This is a math problem: go ahead and calculate.
13. Move to fixed fees.
I’ve got loads of information for making the switch on my Flat Fees Resource Guide. We made the switch more than a decade ago and never looked back. Yes, we have some fee upsets, but they pale in comparison to what we had using an hourly system.
The “red zone” is a dangerous place. It’s where small conflicts grow large. It’s where grievances start. It’s where malpractice actions go from fantasy to reality. Stay out of the red zone.
Use these tips and mix in your other great ideas. Take your thoughts on billing to the next level and then execute by putting them to work in your practice. Please share your ideas, thoughts, and comments so others can benefit from your experience.
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