Collect Like a Casino Boss

What casinos can teach law firms about collecting fees

I couldn’t get into my hotel room.

The door was locked. The electronic key wouldn’t work. Something was wrong, so I headed to the lobby of the Vdara (an MGM hotel right between the Bellagio and Aria).

The desk clerk explained that my credit card had been declined and that she needed an alternate form of payment. I suspect the rather large bar tab for my workshop attendees triggered the fraud alert. (These folks can drink!)

I called Chase and we ran through the list of charges. I acknowledged that the charges were mine, and Chase “cleared” the fraud alert. Good, because it was 10:20, and I was tired.

The desk clerk ran the card. Declined. Hmm. Odd. I called Chase again, worked my way through the dialing maze, and the representative explained that the card was good to go. She also said that she saw no record of Vdara submitting the charge again. Odd.

The desk clerk tried again. Declined. Frustrated, I handed her my other card. Declined. Oh crap. This was not going well. I told the desk clerk that I’d have to go to my room to get my bigger wallet with more cards.

That’s when I remembered that my key didn’t work. I was about to mention that fact when she said she would have “security” escort me to the room to get my wallet.

They don’t screw around in Las Vegas. They may not break your legs anymore, but they will definitely lock you out of your room.

By then it was 10:40, and I was pretty sleepy after getting up, doing the workshop, and then sitting in the Mandarin Oriental bar for almost five hours. Sleepy.

I got the big wallet and went back downstairs.

Citibank. Declined. Was this some weird identity theft issue? Then American Express. Declined.

That’s when I realized that this had to be something other than me being over my credit limit. I started to be pretty sure this was a system problem at Vdara. It was weird though, because other guests were coming and going and paying with their cards.

I called American Express. It had no record of the charge being submitted. I handed my phone to the clerk. She handed it to the manager, who was now watching this fiasco. The manager obtained the codes required to get my charge approved over the phone. She never could get the computer to work. The hotel bill was now paid.

At 11:15, I got back into the room. A quick flossing and tooth brushing, and I was sleeping soundly minutes later.

The legal equivalent of locking guests out of the room until they pay is, I suppose, filing a motion to withdraw. That’s not an option that’s always available to us. But it has the same impact. When customers/clients know they’re about to lose something they care about (their underwear/socks/laptop or their access to their lawyer), they move quickly to get the bill paid to prevent bad things from happening.

It’s noteworthy that the hotel didn’t back down. It didn’t let me back into the room until the bill was paid. There wasn’t any gray area, debate, or discussion. Pay the bill or stand in the lobby: those were my choices. The hotel was serious about getting paid.

Law firms are filled with gray areas when it comes to payment. We’ve got all sorts of wiggle room, rationalizations, excuses, and explanations for why we’re willing to work without getting paid. The clients will be upset, they’ll complain to the bar, they’ll sue us, they’ll damage our reputation, etc. You know the story. You’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you’ve explained your reasons for not breaking their legs (or withdrawing from the case).

The casino people have a culture of getting paid. They put that first. Most law firms don’t.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far. I’m not sure that failing to let me in after it became apparent that I wasn’t the problem and that the hotel was having a system failure was a smart business move. But that didn’t slow them down. The training, management, and technology all focused on getting paid first. The culture says “get paid.” They weren’t going to let me back in the room until they got the money.

Balance is important. We’ve got to treat our clients with respect. We’ve got to finish the relationship on good terms. But we also need to get paid. We may not be locking people out, threatening their children, or taking other extreme measures, but we’ve got to find a way to be sure we’re fairly compensated.

The culture of the team at the hotel put getting paid first. Many of us would be smart to infuse a bit of their culture into ours. We do good work. We help people. We deliver what we promise. We deserve to be paid for what we do.

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