On money and client service.

This is a post primarily directed at attorneys, but I think the general public may get some advantages from it too.

One of my colleagues recently asked me how I could respond to people’s complaints about having to pay for an attorney’s services. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I think I can finally produce an answer.

The simple truth? I don’t respond. I don’t even go down that route, because I charge what I’m worth, and I work with people who are willing to pay that sum. I also do everything in my power to make sure that people who hire me to do a job are satisfied with me when they meet me, I answer their questions in a friendly and timely fashion, and I do what I can to be as honest and up front as possible about the issue of money.

We live in a world where the phrase “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you” is becoming an expected right in every case with every person.” Clarence Gideon’s trumpet is becoming more and more tarnished with this notion, and I tend to think it’s because the public is sorely misinformed as to the whys and whens a court appointed attorney enters the picture. The public sees us as people who are there to serve a client’s every whim, including taking phone calls at 11 PM on a weeknight when the attorney may be at home with children.

The rationale? People don’t value the things they don’t pay for, including legal service. And the various funding mechanisms in place for indigent representation face more and more regulations at the government level. In my home state of Tennessee, a fight to force indigent defense attorneys to compete in a low-bid contract system was defeated, then replaced by a new proposal capping the number of hours an attorney could work indigent cases in a year. When indigent cases are billed out, they go to a government oversight body to make sure those cases were billed properly, then a pittance is paid to the attorney, who must handle everything from overhead and staff salaries before taking home a paycheck less than a plumber’s.

My solution to the problem was simple. I cut the AOC out of the picture, learned how to market myself to the right people, and began focusing on those who would actually pay for my services. How did I manage this Herculean feat? I did the following:

1. Set up mechanisms for understanding when a client will and won’t pay. I do charge consultation fees in my office, and I do so with a smile. My rationale is that my time is valuable, and if you come to me with a legal question it’s the equivalent of going to a doctor for a check-up. I also know that if a client tells me that they cannot afford the fee, or if they need to look at their calendar and then schedule the meeting, or tell me some other excuse I diplomatically tell them to call me when they’re ready to move forward. If they can’t afford the small sum I charge for my time, then there is a good change they won’t be able to either afford my retainer or pay the final bill.

2. During the initial meeting, establish a rapport with the client. Treat the person on their first visit as you would want to be treated, and listen to them. Actively engage in the conversation. Don’t just sit there and take notes on a legal pad. Let the client know you’re listening to them by paraphrasing and asking for clarification when necessary. People are afraid of attorneys–the best man at my wedding even told me “Chris, you’re nice and all, but I hate attorneys.” The process of walking into a law office is an intimidating experience for many people, and if you don’t do what you can to make the client feel comfortable at every opportunity, then you’re doing them–and yourself–a disservice.

3. Don’t be afraid to discuss money. I was extremely uncomfortable asking for money during my first year of practice. I think the end of that discomfort came when my daughter entered the world. In all seriousness, clients who walk into the office expect to discuss money at some point. There’s no reason to beat around the bush and ask shyly for the sum you need to handle a case. I’d almost wager that if you approach the subject of compensation for your services with apprehension, the client may see it as a lack of confidence in yourself, and that could lead to you losing that business.

4. Don’t price yourself out of the gig. This was a rough lesson to learn, and I think it only comes with experience. If a client is coming to you over a $3,000 loan agreement that’s been breached, charging $3500 to get the judgment may put you out of getting that client. Most people walking in are going to approach the notion of hiring an attorney from a numbers perspective, and it doesn’t make financial sense for the average person to pay out more than they’d potentially recover.

5. If the client says they have to “think about it,” say thank you for coming in, and move on. You may not get the business, and that’s okay. That person wasn’t ready to hire someone at that time to pursue their legal rights, they may not have the money at that time, or they simply didn’t think you met their expectations. This does not make you a bad person or an incompetent attorney, it simply means this particular relationship wasn’t a good fit. Brush off your shoulders and continue on with your day.

I hope this helps a few people understand why I do what I do, and provides a few attorneys seeking answers some help. Comments are always welcome, and you can always hit me up on Twitter @clsesq.

Until next time.

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