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Do as I Say, Not as I Did

Categories: Culture, Article

Get used to asking for retainers

JW Way Fundamental #23: Always remember that we are in business to serve our clients' profitably.  "The happier our clients are the more likely we are to get paid. Pay attention to billings and to receivables. There is no need to apologize for making money. The goal of every engagement is happy clients AND paid bills."

When I was in solo practice, I made an Excel spreadsheet tool that I called my "dashboard." Daily I entered the value of work I had performed and would bill, and how much I had collected from what I had previously billed. I had a row for each week, and I posted weekly and monthly goals on the spreadsheet for each category. At the bottom of the page, I calculated daily the percentage I had achieved of each goal, and a percentage of the working days of that month I had consumed to get that far toward my goals. The point of it was that I could see clearly how much I had accomplished, how much farther I needed to go, and how much time I had to reach my goals for (a) the work I could bill and (b) my collections. One cannot pay one's own bills without collections.

I looked at my dashboard every day. It kept my priorities clear.

I had a saying that I told myself: Get the work, do the work, bill the work, collect the work. Rinse and repeat. Keep in focus. Every single day.

Being solo is a sobering experience. There is no one else to carry you if collections fall behind. Collections are the hardest part, because they are outside of your control if you don't have a retainer to bill against.

When I was solo attorney, I had some bad habits. I won't tell you about all of them, but one I will discuss is being overly concerned about asking for substantial retainers and then keeping them refreshed. Admittedly, that isn't an easy conversation to have with a client, and sometimes I let it go instead of standing my ground on getting paid in advance for the work I would do. I needed the work, and did not push for the retainer. Often, far too often, I came to regret those decisions.

Circumstances vary, and retainers are not appropriate for all matters. You will be well served to think of getting one as the norm and not getting one the carefully made exception. Perhaps even more important, refresh the retainer for future work whenever you have billed against it. It does you no good to get an initial retainer and then end up with an unpaid bill for the rest of the work.

Do as I say, not as I did when I was a solo. It is likely that you will lose some work if a potential client goes elsewhere. You are probably also losing the headache of trying to collect from someone who won't pay on time or at all. Get comfortable telling your clients, up front and with no hesitation, that we need a substantial retainer up front to start litigation work and will need the retainer refreshed as the litigation progresses. Get used to it, and get your clients used to it. The more you do it, the easier it gets.


About the Author: Douglas O. Guffey is a healthcare attorney and partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. He assists clients with the business of medicine.