Let your clients know in-person when you are making a change to your billing practices.
Part of the billing process is good communication. Good attorney-client communication underlies everything in the relationship. So while getting your bills out in a timely, predictable fashion is ultimately going to be a great thing for you and your clients, it needs to be managed in a professional, friendly way.
Here’s an example of how not to do it: We recently worked with an attorney on a small corporate project. We’d never worked with this particular attorney before, but for several reasons (tactical and economic) we like to spread little projects out among a few different firms. This new attorney completed the project in a timely way, the quality of the work was fine, and we received the first bill. It was a modest bill, in line with the work performed.
At first impression, I took that as a good sign – here’s a lawyer who’s got their business house in order. I like that. For me, the “non-legal” things a lawyer does have always proven to be a pretty darn good form of due diligence on the lawyer herself.
If her staff is friendly and polite, if she returns calls promptly, if she gives me realistic, practical advice (not yessing me to death or promising things I know can’t be promised), and if her bills come to me on-time, she’s probably also a darn good lawyer. I can’t prove that assertion empirically, but after over 15 years or so, those facts - plus a “vouch” or two from a respected friend or colleague – have become a lawyer screening method that’s never let me down.
However, in this case, a few days (literally) after receiving the bill, this new lawyer sent an email (yes, an email) indicating that payment hadn’t yet been received and inquiring as to when payment would be made. Basically, a collection letter a few days after we received the invoice, which was about two weeks after the work was completed. That’s just too much. That’s overdoing it.
I know I’m a new client, but don’t presume I’m slow pay (I’m not), especially when I’ve given no reason to draw that inference. That email turned my initial impression 180 degrees. It went from “This lawyer runs a nice shop” to “I wonder who this lawyer owes money to” and “Maybe I’m this lawyer’s only source of income.” I also wondered why this lawyer wouldn’t just pick up the phone and call me. Emails like that almost always come off wrong, especially when there’s no pre-existing, solid relationship between the people to begin with. When in doubt, when a billing issue is involved, bypass email and use the phone. Call me.
On that line of thinking, if there is a problem (other than just a routine, polite follow-up call inquiring about payment), don’t put everything on your admin to handle. Maybe that client has a very understandable reason why they haven’t paid or there’s a personal or private issue involved. A pro handles stuff like that face-to-face, or at least together on the phone, lawyer-to-client.
So, while getting bills out on-time is very important, it still needs to be put in context. It can’t be the tail wagging the dog, so to speak.
That said, if you’re turning over a new leaf and committing to getting your bills out on-time, here are a few additional implementation pointers:
For new clients, detail your invoicing practices and payment expectations right up front, in plain English, in your engagement letter. Also, discuss them. Clients will respect you for it, and it’ll dramatically reduce the possibility of a misunderstanding later. New clients will know the rules coming in.
For existing clients, who may have been used to “not-so- good” billing practices from you in the past, it’ll require some proactive moves. Discuss your new practices with them. From a formal standpoint, you may need to amend your engagement agreement, and it may require some personal meetings, as well.
Whatever you do, don’t introduce it in a letter or an email. Confirming it in a nice, friendly, non-lawyer-like email is fine (possibly required, depending upon jurisdictional require – ments), but it needs to be discussed first. Handle that stuff like the pro you are. The Golden Rule applies.
Legal Billing Rule #1: The Longer You Wait, The Less You’ll Get Paid
Legal Billing Rule #2: Clients Won’t Pay a Bill Unless They Receive One
Legal Billing Rule #3: Not Billing In A Timely Fashion Sends A Message
Legal Billing Rule #4: You’ll Poison Relationships And Scare Away Business
Legal Billing Rule #5: Don’t Cause Problems For Your Client & Screw Up Her Budget
Legal Billing Rule #6: Delaying Billing is Like Giving Away Free Money
Legal Billing Rule #7: Avoid Communication Breakdown
Legal Billing Rule #8: Predicting Your Future Income
Legal Billing Rule #9: Capture Time With Easy, Modern Tools
Legal Billing Rule #10: Beat The Procrastination Monster
Legal Billing Rule #11: Get a Bill Buddy
Legal Billing Rule #12: Standardise the Tools
Legal Billing Rule #13: Make Small Improvements Each Quarter
Legal Billing Rule #14: Rolling Out Changes and Letting Your Clients Know