Solo attorney, Joleena Louis, discusses the challenges of getting paid for her work and the lessons she learned in receiving compensation in family law. #ThingsIWishIKnew
I was recently at a networking event with other family law solo attorneys and the topic of discussion turned to the biggest issues facing our practices.
Most of us agreed that we ask for a retainer up front, but family law cases have a tendency to drag on for long periods of time, meaning the retainer can quickly diminish. And family lawyers tend to develop very close relationships with our clients, making it very difficult to demand a few thousand dollars from a struggling mother when you know she does not have that much money.
Helpful Lessons I Learned
The biggest lesson that I learned from the firm where I worked last was the importance of being paid for my work. Since starting my practice, I have had a few experiences where I did not get paid in a timely manner and I quickly adjusted my approach so that it would never happen again.
So far, it has worked in my favor. I have almost zero accounts receivable at this time. Here is my strategy:
1. Set a realistic retainer fee.
I break my retainer into pretrial and trial. I do this by setting an amount that covers the average amount of hours of work I would do up to trial; my retainer agreement states “if a trial date is set there will be an additional retainer. If the retainer balance is $1,000 or less they must replenish the retainer.” This ensures that I receive most of the money upfront and I will not represent the client at trial if the party does not pay the additional retainer on time.
2. Make sure your retainer is clear about billing and fees.
Include when and how all fees are to be paid and how frequently invoices will be sent out. Including what actions can be taken if there is an outstanding balance is essential to provide clarity. Ensuring there is an understanding of the retainer section must be done at the consultation.
3. Send out regular invoices.
I send my invoices every 30 days so my clients always know where they stand. I make sure I include a note about how much of the client’s retainer is left and if they have to replenish it. It is also helpful to break down each activity on the invoice as it limits disputes.
4. Never give discounts or limit any payment plans.
I learned the hard way that giving discounts devalued my work and, in most cases, it was not worth it.
I also rarely allow payment plans, because I have had situations where I started the work and never got the full retainer amount. Some clients find it easier to pay over a couple of weeks, but my representation does not start until I am paid in full.
Know Your Options and Be Proactive
If you happen to use these tactics and still end up with a client owing you money there are options.
The first thing a lawyer needs to do is call the client and discuss payment; this discussion should entail what your next steps should be with the client. If you followed the steps above they should be very familiar with your policies by now.
If possible have them sign a confession of judgment while your relationship is still good. Stop working on the case as soon as you can, even if that means submitting an order to show viable cause to be relieved from the case.
As one solo told me, it’s better to get off a case and be out of a few hundred dollars than to keep working and be out of thousands!
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Joleena Louis is a matrimonial and family law attorney at Joleena Louis Law, a ﬁrm she founded after leaving a boutique matrimonial ﬁrm in Brooklyn. Joleena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ start-up program in Downtown, New York. Her weekly blog series Things I Wish I Knew… explores her thought process and experiences in her transition from small law ﬁrm employee to successful solo practice entrepreneur.