Knowing WHEN to give away your time.
Why discuss giving away time? For attorneys, giving away time is giving away money. Give away too many hours and you’ll damage your practice in larger ways than the dollars you don’t receive. Give away too much and you become known as the discount store (think Wal-Mart) of attorneys and risk losing the respect of your profession and clients. That being said, giving away money is a legitimate business practice in some circumstances so it follows that there are some beneficial occasions for you to give away your time. Knowing when is the key.
Pressure to give away time can come from many directions: Fear that a client is going to complain about your billing, self-deprecating questions about the value of your own work, what the ‘other guys’ are charging, pro bono requests, flat fee structures, and more. These pressures will always be there. Knowing when to give away time will ensure that your practice doesn’t fall prey to the habit of giving away time (money) when it’s not necessary.
Give it away when it wins a new client. Nearly every business on the planet gives something away from time to time especially when it will attract new customers. The best time for discounts is when you are starting out. Building a law practice is difficult. Discounts can help draw clients that may not otherwise notice you.
Offering free consultations is a great way to filter potential clients while giving them something of value. You get to hear their case and decide if it’s a good fit for your practice. They get free advice and are likely to tell others about the experience.
A few years ago, I took advantage of an attorney’s free consultation to learn that I had no case in an auto accident dispute. I didn’t like hearing the advice but I’ve recommended many people to his office because he was honest with me.
Give it away when it’s a pro bono charitable donation. It’s not tax deductible but giving your time is a great gift to your chosen outlet whether it’s an individual, community organization, or national concern. Make a commitment about how much time you will give away and keep to it. Volunteering can easily take you away from your paying work if you don’t manage it.
Giving away your time to legitimate charities is very satisfying and a great word of mouth benefit for your practice. People notice generosity. They will be more likely to recommend your services knowing that you give back to those who need your expertise.
Give it away when it has great ROI. Some money costs too much. Your time is potential money. If you spend three hours fighting for one hour of billable time even if you win, you’ve lost. It’s true for every business. There are some battles just not worth fighting. Fighting for nickels can cost you big dollars later if not done carefully.
When a client first disputes your billing it’s time to make this decision. Will the amount of effort needed to defend your billing cost you more than you’ll get back? Remember that client ‘good will’, repeat business, as well as the actual money amount is at stake. Try to take the emotion out of the decision by making it a dollars and cents proposition. The answer should reflect what’s best for your business and not what satisfies your ego or sense of fair play.
Each of these scenarios can and ought to be planned for. If you are building your practice or trying to grow your client base then make a conscious decision about how much time you will invest in marketing in the form of time ‘giveaways’. Budgeting pro bono time is essential to avoid giving away more time than your business or personal life can sustain. Decide in advance how you will handle billing disputes. Factors like money amounts, client relationship, potential business, word-of-mouth, and time involved can all be considered when putting together your general guidelines for handling disputes. Having a set of general guidelines will help you decide what to do in each case. Planning is critical to avoiding an emotional decision that could cost you more than you win.
The bottom line: Giving away time can benefit your practice. The key is to know when.