Find a better way to finance your practice area

J. Nick Augustine J.D., “The Law Publicist,” is the principal of Law Publicist Communications, an ALR/PRA, Incorporated agency. Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations, marketing and practice management. Nick shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

The economy is always changing. The need for skilled legal practitioners rarely changes. What changes is the consumer’s ability to pay and the lawyer’s creativity in charging fees. If you follow economic trends and are looking to modify your business model you just might discover a better way to practice law and make more money. Step one is recognizing the status quo is no longer viable.

Increased numbers of cases filed pro-se tells us a few things. First, there are still law suits clogging the court’s dockets. Second, the cases that should be settled out of court are now increasingly before the courts. Third, pro-se litigants who take a stab at practicing law from a form book or online resource might be getting it wrong. The problem is not a lacking need for lawyers, rather an ability to pay legal fees.

As unpopular as it sounds, I have said for a while now, “The people getting divorced in the suburbs cannot afford the legal fees but for their home equity loans and lines of credit.” I am sure there are still motions for disbursement of funds for legal fees (from house proceeds sitting in escrow); most houses are not selling and most lines of credit and equity are no longer available. At this point the attorneys need to focus on a client’s actual income and ability to pay.

Some lawyers are turning to value billing. When you offer services at a fixed fee the client is more likely to budget, borrow or otherwise finance legal fees. Progressive law offices spread fixed fees over time so a client is more likely to pay. This way the client receives proper service and the lawyer earns fair revenue.

For many, it seems like the days of a billable hour bonanza are gone. Even if so, don’t think you get out of billing. The ARDC has long stayed away from the business of billing disputes. Having said that, the ARDC is requiring billing to back up fixed fee retainer agreements, and attorneys need to establish that they earned their fees. Other benefits of diligent billing include: (1) offering “No Charges” for short or simple matters; (2) keeping up on billing; (3) increased likelihood of getting paid. Nowadays, if a bill gets to large, the lawyer isn’t as likely to be paid in full. Diligent billing will always serve you well.

When modifying how you sell and deliver legal services, make sure you pay attention to the rules governing how you are allowed to charge by statute. Last time I checked you couldn’t charge a contingent fee in a criminal defense case. Even if you take this advice and decide to keep your status quo, you might think of better ways to practice law and make more money.

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