YourABA: November 2012
YourABA October 2012 Masthead

Avoid surprises: Bill regularly

Sending regular bills to clients is as important as staying in regular contact with them, say panelists for the CLE “Making More Money by Being More Ethical.”

One surprise bonus of billing: “If you send clients bills more often, then they think of you more often, and they will send you more referrals,” says Chaim Steinberger of Chaim Steinberger PC, in New York City.

However, he adds, “I suspect that for many lawyers, they think that clients don’t like bills and are hesitant to send them out.”

Regular billing prevents surprises for the client, though, Steinberger says. It also shows clients all of the hard work you’ve been doing on their behalf. “The client sees that you’ve been working on the matter,” Steinberger says. “Even if you have a contingency case and there is no amount due, it will show what’s been happening. It will show that the paralegal followed up with the opposing counsel or is trying to assemble the records, or reached out to five or 10 doctors.”

If you’re doing a lot of work and the amount the client owes is piling up, then it becomes even more important to send bills more frequently — “every week or every day, if you’re really doing a lot of work,” Steinberger says. The client then sees “how the bills are going up instead of being surprised at the end of the month or the end of six months.”

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Todd C. Scott, vice president of risk management for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. in Minneapolis, says he sees the bill as an essential part of the continued communication between the lawyer and the client. “What you really want to avoid is a situation where you’re going to end up having to sue the client for unpaid fees,” Scott says. “It’s the easiest thing in the world for the client to check the box when the summons and complaint arrive that says they have a counterclaim. You know and they know in their heart that you might not have done anything wrong … but they’re doing that to gain some leverage in the fee dispute.”

If you’re in a fee dispute with a client, stop and examine what it’s worth, Scott says. Hopefully the fee is not so huge that the lawyer would have the option to walk away, he says. “But then if you’re going to sue for fees, start to think of the value of your time, what it’s going to take to pursue this thing and what’s the likelihood of getting back something in return,” Scott says.

Steinberger emphasizes the importance of not letting clients get too far ahead of their fees. “As the fees keep mounting, the client may not accuse you of malpractice for $5,000 or $10,000, but if the client owes you $100,000 or $150,000, that’s a heck of a lot of money, and it requires a lot of strength of character” for the client not to put in a counterclaim, he said. “Remember that the more the client owes you, the greater the temptation, and it’s not fair for us to put clients in that position.”

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