6 tips to keep legal fees proportionate for the privately paying client
As legal professionals, we all know just how much time, energy and expertise we invest into case work for our clients. Despite all that work and attention, and (hopefully) a successful resolution, what many clients see is a super-scary hourly rate quoted when they first instruct, and a substantial and often unclear invoice at the end. and in many cases, a distress purchase, can be understandably difficult
It's therefore our responsibility as legal professionals to help clients understand how they can keep costs proportionate within our fee structures. Simply sending a sheet of T&Cs and charges on an email and hoping they'll read the entire document does not promote good client service.
So, here are my six top tips on how you can help your clients take control of their costs, without compromising on the contact they have with you, or the quality of your service.
1 Transparent charging (know the rules)
The SRA Transparency rules will be changing on 25 November, when the current SRA Handbook will be replaced with the new SRA Standards and Regulations.
The new rules on costs information will require legal professionals to provide clients with detailed information including:
- total cost of the service
- the basis for your charges
- the likely costs of disbursements
- services that are included in the price
The days of bills being rendered stating, 'For professional services' are long gone. Fully-itemised bills help demonstrate to your clients how fees have been incurred for non-tangible actions.
Transparency will also avoid post-case scrutiny of invoices, a time-consuming, non-chargeable process dreaded by most solicitors, particularly when you have put your heart and soul into a case. However, don't be defensive or apologise for any invoices rendered. As practitioners, we all know the amount of work that goes into tasks that clients view as straightforward.
2 Set clear goals from the outset
Ensure your client and your team agree on and fully understand what the client's key objectives are. If their main priority in a divorce case is to retain the former matrimonial home, for example, they need to tell you that right from the outset. Then their case can be structured accordingly, you can give them realistic advice, and the client can base their decisions upon that.
Similarly, if a client's objectives are unrealistic, you need to make this clear early on. This avoids clients becoming disgruntled when several thousand pounds later, they haven't achieved their goals.
3 Prepare for meetings
The more emotive or complex their case, the more likely your clients are to be disorganised. Often clients don't realise that this lack of planning can lead to increased fees. So, offer to help them set an agenda for their meeting with you. Provide a template checklist to make sure that they have all their documentation ready. And of course, be properly prepared yourself with all the case notes to hand!
4 You are not their counsellor
Clients can be demanding, particularly in areas of law that are emotive. Even the most professional and highly successful of clients can fail to focus when it involves their personal lives. They may need you to be reassuring, empathetic, even sympathetic, but you're not there as a shoulder to cry on or a sounding board for their anger.
When clients start a meeting with a lawyer or solicitor to denigrate their soon-to-be ex-spouse or to offload their distress at their legal situation, it is simply not cost effective. Clients don't always appreciate that the first part of their meeting was in fact chargeable time, even though you were not actually discussing their legal issue. There is a fine balance between ensuring that private clients are treated with compassion and respect, and them appreciating how chargeable time accumulates.
It's much better (and cost effective) if you use your meetings together to focus on the matters at hand. They can obtain their support from friends and/or an expert counsellor.
5 Don't play email ping-pong
As a busy divorce lawyer, I really detest email ping-pong. This is when clients send a long email to their lawyer, and then expect an equally long reply in return. Often these long emails actually raise more questions than they answer.
Clients often do not fully appreciate charging methods for emails, even though our terms are very clear on this point. Make sure that your client understands that reading their epic email and considering your reply is time consuming – and time is chargeable. I suggest to clients that it's much easier (and cheaper) to pick up the phone and talk, or book a one to one meeting.
With fast broadband and unlimited data, clients can easily send multiple attachments on emails for their solicitors to download and organise. Whilst digital documents are more environmentally friendly, sorting attachments is often very time consuming for support staff, not to mention the solicitor who ultimately has to collate and organise them. Again, ensure your client understands this.
6 No late night instructions
In this always-connected age, it's easy for clients to get upset or worried or angry, and fire off a whole new set of instructions to you late at night. Often such instructions are an emotive reaction to something that has been said or done.
Encourage clients to resist impulsively hitting the Send button. Don't limit their activities and involvement in any way, but promote your clients having time to reflect on their position in the clear light of day, so they can give measured instructions to action.
In short, it's all about conveying the honest value of your services to your client.
What are your top tips?
If you've got any tips of your own, do share them. Just add a comment underneath this blog.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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