Clients are less likely to pay their lawyers toward the end of a representation. This is especially true for hourly work and those situations where the client has already paid enough to feel justified in stopping payment. For attorneys, the risks of non-payment are especially pronounced when a representation approaches a game-changing event, such as a hearing on a dispositive motion or a closing date for a transaction. In these scenarios, the law firm is likely to send out a final bill after it has completed the lion’s share of its work if the matter suddenly ends. As consultants to lawyers and law firms, we have seen that these bills are especially difficult to collect in full because, at this point, the law firm has lost its leverage over the client.
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the risks of non-payment which are consistent with the firm’s ethical responsibility not to withdraw from the representation when doing so could prejudice the client. The best strategy is to alter the billing cycle to avoid sending out a bill after the major event in the case has already taken place. Ideally, you want as much of the bill paid off before the hearing, closing, or other key event as possible.
Too many attorneys treat the billing cycle as fixed and as something that they need to serve rather than the other way around. It is generally advisable to maintain a monthly billing cycle – but not always. There are times when bills should be sent out off-cycle.
If you work at a firm where billing off-cycle is likely to be met with resistance, the best approach is to begin raising this issue more than one billing cycle in advance. We have advised lawyers to raise this issue in writing about 45 days before the date of the hearing, closing, or other event that could end the representation. If you anticipate pushback from the people who handle your invoices, provide a written estimate of how much money will be at risk for non-payment if the firm adheres to its normal billing cycle. This is especially effective for non-equity partners, Of Counsel, and associates who often don’t play a large role in sending out client bills.
In addition to changing the timing of the invoice, it can be helpful to change who provides the last significant bill to the client. Specifically, when the risk of non-payment is predictably high and the amount at stake is considerable, the client is more likely to pay attention to the bill if it is transmitted by the lawyer leading the representation. One way to do this would be for the lawyer to add the handling of the fee as an agenda item to a meeting or call with the client.
If the prospect of talking to your staff about making an isolated and fully justified exception to the monthly invoicing cycle causes heartburn, that may be a symptom of a larger problem. At too many firms, the billing cycle is run for the convenience of the staff. There are many aspects of creating an efficient cash flow system that justify making lawyers adhere to deadlines. Requiring attorneys and other timekeepers to submit their time by a set deadline, for instance, is perfectly sensible. But your invoicing system should be flexible enough to accommodate lawyers who request that bills be sent out at a specific time because of their knowledge of a particular client or matter.