Solo attorneys don’t have to wait on payment. Like any other business, Solo’s should expect to be paid when services are rendered. I realize that expectations don’t always meet reality. Your clients may be taking advantage of you and making excuses as to why they can’t pay on time.
Client excuses can be really creative. You’d probably laugh out loud if getting paid wasn’t a necessity for you right now. You’ve got bills to pay!
But they keep telling you they don’t understand why you charge so much for putting some simple documents together. (If it was so simple, why didn’t they do it themselves!) They say they don’t understand your bill so they aren’t paying (Not that they will ever contact you for an explanation.). Or, they had to pay for their kid’s orthodontic work so they can’t pay now (they don’t remember telling you about their great Cancun vacation last time you met). Truth is, you are the last on their list to pay. Right down there with the doctor bills. Vacations, mortgage, utilities, cars, hobbies, and everything else is priority.
Besides, they think, you’re an attorney so you are rich. You don’t need their money. If they only knew!
If you really want to dispense with all this nonsense, there is a way! The steps below will give you a start.
- Agree to Terms: A common oversight for Solo Attorneys is to assume the client will pay when he or she gets your bill. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the financial conversation up front. Don’t assume the client understands his or her obligations and is eager to pay your bill.
Have a financial agreement that the client signs. It should clearly state your terms and the events that require payment. But don’t rely solely on an agreement. As you know, an agreement is only as good as your willingness to enforce it. The best way to enforce payment agreements is our next point.
- Get a Card-On-File: Credit card acceptance is relatively new to the legal profession. Only in the last ten years or so have credit cards become a common way to pay legal bills. Some legal offices still don’t accept credit or debit cards.
I’m not talking about plain vanilla credit card acceptance as a way to enforce payment agreements. I’m referring to a powerful method that puts you in control of getting paid on time. If you will get a payment agreement that includes a credit card-on-file you then have the means to control the payment process. It works like this.
Your financial agreement should include a consent to use the client’s credit card to process a payment once your invoice is approved. If it’s a fee for service arrangement, then you can agree on pricing beforehand, and no ‘approval’ is needed. Once the work is done you can process the payment. If you are billing hourly, then it’s prudent to wait for the client to see and approve your invoice. Once he or she approves you can then process the payment. You are paid immediately instead of waiting for a check. Card-on-file is a great way to ensure payment but it won’t do any good if you don’t bill. The chances of getting paid on time are greatly enhanced by getting your billing done on time.
- Bill On Time: I talk to many solo attorneys who hate this part of their practice. They want to practice law, not run a business. It’s a grind to even think about doing the billing. They want to delegate it, but alas, there’s no one to delegate to. Until you can earn enough to outsource your billing you will have to discipline yourself to do it regularly.
Clients are more likely to pay when billing is timely. If you wait a month, clients will assume you don’t need the money right away so they’ll delay payment. They’ve also received what they hired you for so why should they hurry up and pay you. If you delay billing as an attorney, you can expect your clients to delay payment. Another fact when it comes to billing leads us to the next point. If your clients don’t understand the bill, they will delay paying it.
- Bill Clearly: It’s easy for professionals to get locked into language that their peers understand but their clients do not. It’s the same with doctors, or engineers, or architects. In the medical world, it’s extremely common for bills to be written in language only a third-year med-student would understand. People don’t like paying for things they can’t understand.
That goes for your invoices too. Can someone who has no legal training understand what you are billing them for? If not, can you find a way to explain your charges in layman’s terms? Furthermore, do your clients realize the benefits they received from your services? If you will take the time to make your billing clear while proving your worth, clients will be more willing to pay on time. The points above spell out giant steps toward getting paid, but every one of them requires that you follow up.
- Follow Up: Steps one through four are great starters to get you paid on time. Each one, however, requires that you stay on top of the process. Taking time to ensure that your clients understand your financial policy and their obligations takes follow up. Capturing and using card-on-file requires follow through. Billing on time and in clear language requires thought, discipline, and follow up.
I guess the bottom line for solo practice attorneys is to realize that being a great lawyer is not enough. You have to be a good businessman too. Do yourself a favor and learn the business. It’s an investment well worth the time and trouble. Those who do find that they have more time to do what they really love, practice law. Until then, you will benefit by taking these small steps toward getting paid on time.