How to Avoid Being the Bill Collector
How much time does it take you, from the time you send off an invoice until you deposit funds, to get paid for work you’ve already done? 30 days? 60 days? Longer? You may need to rethink your billing practices in order to avoid taking on another role in your office that does not come with any glamorous perks: the bill collector.
Chances are, the simplest way to avoid being the bill collector is to seek payment up front. Ask for a retainer at the outset of the representation, and bill against it. Provide plenty of notice when funds are getting low so that your client knows when further payment is expected. This sets up a no-fuss way to ensure that you are compensated for work performed without having to 'hunt' anyone down.
If you haven’t secured payment up front, or perhaps agreed to move to monthly billing once the retainer was spent, then you’ll need to take a few factors into consideration.
First, are you adequately screening potential clients to determine the likelihood that they will be paying clients? While you certainly want to help people with whatever legal needs they may have, it’s important to remember that you are not a legal fairy godmother. You are running a business. That means that you have an expectation that you will be paid for your work. Direct, honest communication about fees is necessary. If you accept clients without considering whether or not they can afford your services and/or will actually pay for those services, you are setting yourself up for frustration, collections problems and a potential fee dispute. If you see red flags before signing on the client, declining representation may be the prudent move.
Next, do you have payment terms? If so, what are they? Were the terms clearly communicated in advance of the representation in writing? Do they appear on your invoice? If your payment terms are established from the outset, you know that the client is aware of your payment expectations. As one attorney I know always says, “If there are no bones in the bowl, the dog doesn’t bark.” This is a simple first step to take to improve the likelihood of prompt payment once you’ve accepted a client and begun working on their case.
If your client has missed a bill or two, determine if they are willing to pay or if they are truly trying to skip out on their bill. You can directly contact the client and remind them of their outstanding bill, or you might try having someone else in your office delicately approach the client to assess the situation. If it’s the former, the client may have simply forgotten (it happens to the best of us), and may be willing to pay once the matter is brought to their attention.
If it’s the latter, be polite, but persistent, when requesting that the client pay for the services you’ve rendered. You may hit a point, however, where you must consider if it’s worth the time, expense and hassle of tracking down the client and chasing payment. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you may consider whether it is in your best interest to chalk up the debt as a loss or to pursue a collection action (which has its own considerations and risks). If you’re in the middle of litigation, don’t forget to consider your ethical obligations regarding withdrawing from representation.
If you plan ahead by getting a retainer when possible, and by clearly setting out your payment expectations, hopefully you can avoid the problems associated with being both an attorney and a bill collector.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success.