Wisconsin Lawyer: What Keeps You Awake at Night?: How Can I Avoid Negotiating the Bill After the Work Is Done?:

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    What Keeps You Awake at Night?: How Can I Avoid Negotiating the Bill After the Work Is Done?

    A client of many years has asked for a percentage discounted from his bill. We frequently perform work for this client, but he does not use our firm exclusively. How can I avoid a round of negotiations over the bill after the work is done, while at the same time maintain a good relationship with our client?
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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 8, August 2008

    What Keeps You Awake at Night?

    How Can I Avoid Negotiating the Bill After the Work Is Done?

    A client of many years has asked for a percentage discounted from his bill. We frequently perform work for this client, but he does not use our firm exclusively. How can I avoid a round of negotiations over the bill after the work is done, while at the same time maintain a good relationship with our client?

    Sidebars:

    Michael F. 
Brown

    Address Potential Billing Concerns During Your Initial Consultation

    You can avoid a common problem on the back end (for example, attempts to renegotiate bills) by identifying that problem at the front end, that is by discussing it at all initial consultations.

    To address your concern, you could say something like this at consultations.

    "Please know the rate we agreed to is final. I cannot increase that rate later because I feel my work has been worth more, or for any other reason. On your part, you can't decrease the rate later. On rare occasion, a client of mine assumes rates or bills can be renegotiated later. Then, when the client comes to me and tries to renegotiate, he is disappointed to learn I won't. Please know I will not ask you to renegotiate, and I won't renegotiate if asked. We both need clarity about what will be paid, and no surprise requests to pay something different. Do you agree?"

    I have similar conversations in my own consultations and have nearly eliminated the specific problems I discuss. Clients remember the types of negative conduct that "some clients" do, and they don't want to become that client.

    Unless, that is, they have good reason to.

    We must always be open to the possibility that a discount-seeking client may have legitimate concerns. That is, where fees exceed value. It is best that an attorney identifies these occasions first, before the client does. If you spot such an occasion _ for example, you get a court decision rendering moot a brief (and its billed hours) _ that is a great opportunity to inform the client you recognize the fee/value mismatch, and that you are discounting the bill.

    Michael F. Brown, Peterson, Berk & Cross S.C., Appleton

    Determine If You Want to Keep the Client

    Do you want to keep a relationship with this client? As you become more successful in your practice, you don't need clients who demand your time but then won't pay for it. Our practice with unreasonable clients is to tell them, "Pay what you want to pay and what you think our services were worth. And never contact this office again for future work."

    Rule No. 1: Never sue for fees. Rule No. 2: Don't do work for unreasonable and demanding clients. Even if this client never pays, we can move on without begging for fees from unsatisfied and unreasonable clients.

    Patricia D. Jursik, Jursik & Jursik, Cudahy

    Janice K. 
WexlerAsk the Client to Articulate a Problem Requiring a Discount

    Of course the first tactic is to avoid the situation entirely; promptly send out monthly statements with detailed descriptions of the work done. If you do this and are responsive to the client on an ongoing basis (promptly return calls, and so on) and there has not been one peep out of the client as to the bill before the request to renegotiate it, I would call the client and ask whether there was a particular service that did not meet the client's expectations. This forces the client to point to your itemized statement and articulate a problem. The next question I would ask (in the same phone call) is why the client did not point out this problem at the time of the initial billing.

    If the client has anything reasonable to say in response to these questions, I would consider the discount. If the client wants to pay less simply because he or she is a volume buyer, I would politely say that I believe the bill to be fair and reasonable, and that I am happy to waive (or did waive) a retainer fee in light of the fact that he or she is a regular client, but the bill stands as a reasonable measure of the value of the services provided.

    I would be willing to take the chance that the client will dump me for other providers or conclude that I am a person who has some integrity when measuring my own worth.

    Janice K. Wexler, Scheffer & Wexler S.C., Madison

    Consider Why the Client Is Asking for a Discount

    One cannot blame a person for trying to save money. Remember, everything is negotiable!

    Why is the client requesting a discount? Ask her if there were problems with your legal services. Remind her that your number-one priority is providing high-quality legal representation, and that you are concerned if that isn't happening.

    If the client has been satisfied with the quality of work, ask her if she is experiencing any financial problems necessitating the request. If so, work out a payment plan instead of a discount.

    Review the bill with your staff, and find out if there is anything amiss with the bill. Were you accurate in timekeeping? Was the case more complex than anticipated? Explain these things to your client.

    Consider how much business this client brings to your practice and whether this client generates new business.

    If you have experienced increases in operating expenses, explain this to your client, and tell the client that over the years it is becoming more difficult for you to afford giving discounts.

    Lastly, consider requiring larger retainer fees or deposits at the beginning of the representation and periodic billing during the representation.

    Jennifer Lee Edmondson, Attorney at Law, Appleton




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