An Offer They Can’t Refuse: Getting Clients to Pay, Part 2

Alright, so Monday I talked about all the reasons I hate it when a client doesn’t pay their bill. The main reason, as you might have gleaned, is because I provide a service, like every attorney out there, which requires me to use my knowledge, time, resources, and professional expertise to help people that can barely count to 11 even if they take off their pants first. This is not an easy task, and frequently leads me to question my life choices.

Today we’re gonna forge the fuck forward by talking about the four options frequently focused on when a client refuses to pay, and since it’ll be a long one, let’s just go right into this shit.

Let It Go.

I’m gonna get this out of the way: A lot of lawyers go this route for reasons that’ll become clear. I, personally, do not.

The first option when a client stiffs your ass on an outstanding invoice is to follow the form of Anna from Frozen, something every fucking parent in the world has hear millions of times (not to mention something millions of girlfriends have likely heard from their boyfriend), and just “Let it go/Let it go/Don’t bill the ass anymore.”

I am not  a fan of this fucking option, because I have a burning desire to hunt down the motherfuckers that try to skip out on my bill legally mug them for every penny they owe. If I have an outstanding bill, I will not fuck off somewhere to the mountains and build an ice castle with a sentient snow monster, waiting for the iceman and his reindeer sidekick to cometh. No, I want to scour the earth, playing a real life version of my favorite PBS show from youth: “Where In The World Is My Fuckin’ Money, Shithead?” However, other lawyers will disagree with me on this.

See, clients hold an inordinate amount of power in the lawyer-client relationship, because they have the ability to file an unfounded and meritless complaint to the state bar against a specific attorney, stating whatever they want to say. A client can file a complaint saying that I’m not only a bad lawyer, but also a Satanist who sacrifices puppies and has sex with little people in public while doing so, but only after making sure a field trip of pre-schoolers will be present. The claim may be completely fucking ridiculous, but the state bar will at least make a cursory glance at it and likely contact me, and possibly bump it up to the next level of review looking for anything I may have done wrong even if it isn’t directly related to the clients complaint. Is it because the state disciplinary investigators are righteous pricks? Well, yes.

But it’s also because we are a self-regulating profession, and they have to be righteous pricks in order to catch the lawyers out there who are acting unethically or fucking over their clients. So, much like Child Protective Services, the disciplinary board will at least poke around at any complaint filed to determine if there’s merit. Which, in turn, can cost a lawyer a ton of fucking money now that he’s contacting his malpractice insurer and a lawyer who deals with the state bar. Clients, being the sneaky little shits that clients are, have learned that some lawyers, faced with the prospect of a bar complaint, will just write off the bill and move the fuck on.

…Then there are the guys like me, who document everything to the ends of the fucking Earth. I don’t move on.

Getting a Bigger Retainer.

This one is the most “no shit” answer out of the whole bunch. “If you have doubts about getting paid, Boozy,” you may say, “Then why aren’t you getting paid up front?

Well, Dipshit, I am. I’m getting a retainer out of every client that comes in the door and hires me. But I don’t do flat-fee work, and I’m a litigator by trade. That means your retainer is never going to cover all of the work I do on your case unless I make it absurdly huge. Instead, I’ll ask for a $5,000.00 retainer in advance, and then bill against that. I’ll stick clause in the contract requiring you to pay $X amount into the retainer fund each time you pay the invoice for the overage to keep it at a certain level so I have some guarantee of payment. But, for instance, let’s say I put $10,000 worth of work into your case in the month…even if I’m holding $5,000 in trust, the client still has to pay me the other $5,000 when I bill them and replenish that fucking retainer up so I can bill against money in the bank.

If I were to ask for all of my estimated fees in advance, the retainer would run somewhere between $15,000 to $50,000 for every fucking case I took on, just to make sure I’m covered in case the matter goes into overtime. The point I’m getting at is a retainer is a guarantee of some of your fucking money, but not every penny that you’re owed. The other option is to switch to a flat fee system, which would result in me trying to estimate the cost of the case up front, and could end up with me overcharging the client for what turns out to be a relatively simple case, or working a difficult case for approximately less money than Tommy at McDonald’s makes for flipping burgers, with about 20x the stress levels.

So “Get it in advance” just isn’t a perfect fucking answer, guys, because there may still be fees outstanding.

Did You Know I Can Lien Your Shit?

Did you know there’s something out there called an “Attorney’s Lien?” This means that if you leave my office with a bill unpaid, I can hold onto your shit. I ethically, depending on certain situations and contingent on certain restrictions, do not have to give you any documents, papers, property, or money in my possession if you refuse to pay your bill, and this extends to your settlement checks and shit. I mean, I can just hold onto your shit for as long as it takes to get my fucking bill paid, so long as I follow the proper procedure under the state law.

[Note: HEY ASSHOLES! What I’m linking to here is the ABA Model Rule 1.8(i)(a) which says this. However you dipshits should definitely know by now that the Model Rules only apply to the extent they have been adopted in your jurisdiction and may differ. You need to check your State Bar opinions on this shit to determine the proper procedure and restrictions on asserting an attorney’s lien in your jurisdiction! Don’t fucking say that a lawyer from the internet told you it was okay, I’m not your goddamn disciplinary counsel.]

There’s also this fun thing called a “charging lien.” If I’m retained for a specific case, and you indicate to me that my fee is to be paid, in whole or in part, from the proceeds of that case, and that money actually comes the fuck in, I am totally fucking entitled to hold onto the portion of my fees that are in those funds. I don’t have to release them to you, and guys, I fucking won’t. You will get a nice letter from me stating that I’m releasing all of the funds less my fucking payment which I’ll hold in trust for X number of days to give you a chance to start protesting with me. I’m entitled to do this because you used me to get the goddamn money in the first place.

The retaining lien and charging lien have some restrictions on them, though. For instance, if your case is still ongoing I ethically can’t take any action that will substantially prejudice you, including holding onto your file or papers in the file until paid. The file belongs to the client, not the lawyer, and I’ll have to provide shit to your current counsel as needed. But this substantial prejudice really only exists when the case is still an ongoing matter, and it only pertains to parts of the file that will hurt your case going forward. If I have a check in my possession, and that check or cash doesn’t substantially prejudice your case going forward I don’t have to give it to you. I can’t spend it, I can’t use it, I can’t apply it to my fees, but I sure as fuck don’t have to give it to you.

I Will Sue You.

This is the last resort of lawyers. The old adage used to be that a lawyer should never sue their client, and that’s likely good advice if there’s absolutely any question about how the case file was handled or the validity of some of your bills, because the client is going to react to a lawsuit by calling the disciplinary board or counter-suing you for malpractice. However, if you’re a good lawyer who is, by and large ethical, then that isn’t too much of an issue because there’s nothing there to find. Plus, the engagement letter the client signed is a fucking contract you can take action upon.

I have sued clients for my fees in the past. I have gotten my fucking fees paid, specifically because I am the type of asshole that will garnish the funeral home for the possessions they bring in with your goddamn body. Give me a shovel and a couple hours, and I will try to get the Sheriff to levy upon your fucking corpse. I will take your goddamn dog to satisfy my bill if I think the Sheriff will roll with me on doing so. I’m a thoroughgoing asshole and a goddamn pitbull with collecting on unpaid judgments, and that’s why my client hired me.

I rarely have to fucking do it. Generally, I’ll send the client a copy of the complaint that has been drafted with the words “We’ll be filing this next week, we just wanted to give you a heads up so you can talk to counsel since, obviously, we no longer represent you in this matter.” There’s a lot of other shit there, but that’s the gist of them. Many times, the threat of going into court will get the bill paid and, at the same time, I can get the client to sign a release of any fee dispute.

Oh yeah, that brings up another thing:

Fee Disputes Aren’t a Big Deal.

If a client disputes their bill, they’ll likely contact the Bar Association and the disciplinary board about it. The investigators up there literally have a box that they check which reads “fee dispute – fuck off.” Unless the client is alleging something unethical, the disciplinary board does not care that you have a problem with our fee. It’s not unethical for me to bill you.

Most of these fee disputes end up getting referred to mediation programs, where we sit down and have someone negotiate the payment of our fee with the client. Maybe we don’t get the whole amount, but we get a good goddamn portion of it, and the matter is closed.

Just remember, if you have cash on contingency in your account and there’s a fee dispute, you have an ethical duty to maintain those disputed funds separate and not touch them until the dispute is resolved.

 

So, you know, there you go, 4 options when a client won’t pay. Friday I’ll be running the monthly Fetish Friday post, this time about the subject of Rape by Deception, and then next week?  Next week, dudes, I’m going on vacation.

-BB