One of the toughest issues lawyers have to discuss with their clients is money– particularly the fees kept by or paid to the lawyer.
Tort plaintiffs are aghast that the lawyer would keep a third of the damages awarded (or even half if it goes up on appeal). Billable hours are still the coin of the realm, even in an age of growing flat-rate fee structures, and clients hate them. Even those flat rates can make a layperson’s hair stand on end. But the simple fact is, Henry Hill was right: pay me.
The university bursar didn’t let me skate when I said tuition was too damn high. Sallie Mae doesn’t let me out of my student loans just because I don’t like the interest rate. The Missouri Bar doesn’t waive my annual dues just because I’m a good fella. This isn’t whining– I put it this way to refute the notion that practicing law doesn’t come with costs.
I’m very fortunate. My clients are all lawyers, and they almost all see why I insist on pre-payment for what I provide– many of them do the same. I don’t often have to justify that insistence, because they understand intuitively that either (1) they’ll forget to pay me later or (2) their accounting office will ignore their bill request after the fact or (3) somebody along the line will misplace the paperwork. Any of those mean that I have to bug them for what they owe me, possibly several times.
I hate having to bug a client for money. Even worse, the client hates receiving my “hey, Saul, when can I expect you to pay this balance, hmmm?” That taints any relationship, and this business is entirely dependent on relationships. Entirely.
Sure, there are practice areas in which an advance payment is impossible. Sure, there are certain clients who insist on paying later, and their business is simply too valuable to turn away. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but insisting on payment up front does far more to foster relationships than “okay, you can send a check next month.” Not only that– it keeps costs down because, as a friend put it, I don’t have to raise my rates “to have payers subsidize non-payers.” Paying upfront means everybody wins.