The Art of Bartering
An alternative way to bill for legal services is to barter. A successful barter transaction involves exchanging goods or services of equal value with little or no money changing hands. Since finding persons or businesses with which to barter services on a piecemeal basis would be time-intensive and inefficient, there are numerous barter exchange groups or clubs within which one may operate. There are a few national groups and many groups that operate on a local or regional basis that may or may not have reciprocal arrangements with other regional barter groups. Barter exchange clubs or groups will have a number of different businesses whose services you may purchase or who may purchase your legal services with “barter” dollars similar to a checking account.
When one joins a barter club, your barter “account” may be immediately credited with a certain amount of “barter dollars” that you may use to purchase goods or services from other members of the club. Payment may involve the use of a “checkbook” or it may be handled directly with the barter club that handles the debiting and crediting of accounts. When a person pays for your legal services, the agreed upon fee in “barter” dollars is deposited into your account that you may then use to purchase other goods and services. Filing fees and other out-of-pocket expenses, such as sales tax, are not included in the barter transaction and would be paid outside the barter transaction. Reputable barter organizations send some type of accounting report at the end of the year that may be used for tax purposes. Income from barter transactions is considered income just as if you were paid in cash.
Using barter is especially helpful for lawyers who are just starting out. Typically, barter groups or organizations are eager to have lawyers join and may give higher credits or better terms to lawyers in order to persuade them to participate. It is then possible to purchase many items that are necessary to start up a practice, such as printers, copiers, fax machines, printing services, etc. Most barter groups or organizations have a good supply of restaurant scrip, too, which is also helpful for start-up lawyers with limited funds. It is recommended, just as in dealing with a client who is paying cash, to check out the businesses first and to check out their accounts with the barter group to ensure they are in good standing prior to agreeing to perform any legal services. Often it is possible to pick up cash paying clients through barter organizations as well. It may also be viewed as a networking opportunity and another way to get your name in front of other businesses and people.
As many services as are available in barter groups, it is not possible to survive solely on barter income. As your practice becomes more established, it is probably wise to limit the number of matters you handle for barter. Managed successfully, however, barter remains a viable way to supplement your income and market to another group of potential clients.
Sharon K. Campbell is a solo in Dallas, Texas, with a civil and consumer litigation practice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.