Lawyers, Guns and Credit Cards

By T.J. Thurston

Much of our lives are tracked by the use of credit cards (especially if debit cards are in the mix). We use them at grocery stores, Chuck E Cheese’s, and at Hollister’s when our 16-year-old just has to have that $350 sweatshirt. So why shouldn’t lawyers get in on the deal? It makes payments from clients simpler, right? Not so fast, plastic man! Here are some points to consider

There are plenty of services that gladly process credit card payments: Costco, PayPal, your bank, and those many independent credit card processing companies that have a zillion telemarketers who pester you with the “Can I speak to the person in charge of accepting payments at your firm?” calls.

There are various methods to accept credit card payments: A stand-alone machine provided by the credit card merchants; a direct call to the service provider; or payments through the credit card merchants’ Web site or integrated with your own Web site in a “shopping cart”-type system. Determine which works best with your practice while ensuring that “Skippy” in Bulgaria can’t hack into your account.

Next, decide how to alert clients to this new payment method. You can send a mass email to your existing clients, but you may incur their wrath for spam. (Spam, spam, spam, spam. . . . Sorry, I don’t know how the Vikings got in here.) You can publicize it on your Website or include it as an option on your invoice.

But there are more difficult issues to resolve first. Credit card convenience comes at a cost. Some services require that you buy or rent the stand-alone machine. Charges may attach when it dials for authorization or when you complete the transaction. All service providers charge a processing fee—usually a percentage of the total sale. If the invoice is $500, you may lose $12.50 of that to the credit card company.

Let’s assume you’re comfortable with the costs involved. Here are some tougher questions. Do you accept a credit card payment for the retainer? How do you ensure that fee doesn’t commingle with your other funds (Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.15 Safekeeping Property)? How do you handle charge-backs or a client’s canceled payment? (The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers the right to dispute a charge.) If your practice is primarily criminal law, do you really want to accept credit card payments from clients charged with identity theft or purse snatching? Your practice area will help determine whether credit cards are a viable payment method. It is illegal for bankruptcy lawyers to accept credit card payments from clients (creditors in bankruptcy don’t take too kindly to that), but the clients’ relatives can pay by credit card. Flat fee services also lend themselves to credit card payments. But your conscience may wrestle with the debt, interest, and stress this payment method may add to your clients’ lives.

“Guns and credit cards” may be redundant for lawyers, so make sure you’re not shooting your clients or yourselves by accepting payments from them—credit cards, that is, not guns.

T. J. Thurston practices in Huntley, Illinois, and can be reached at or visit his Website at

Copyright 2007

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