Money, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

When You’re Not Getting Paid at Your Small Firm

I’ve always marveled at lawyers who continue to represent clients when they’re not getting paid, or are too weak and fragile to engage in a serious conversation with the client over the unpaid bill(s). It happens more in the civil arena, as any halfway intelligent criminal lawyer knows you get the money up-front. Bad results with open bills is never a good way to pay the rent.

But there are those criminal lawyers who are too stupid to get the money up-front. They claim “where I practice,” you have to offer payment plans. Problem is, there is no such thing as a payment plan. What I call it is a “non-payment” plan.

I can count on one hand, well, maybe one and a half hands, the amount of times I’ve been stiffed by a client. In most cases, it was where I was waiting for the “money up-front,” and decided to do some work in the interim because I (wrongly) believed the client was good for it. The client wasn’t good for it, and I quickly withdrew from any court case or ceased doing work.

And I know, there are those out there that believe it’s pure arrogance to claim that I get paid or I don’t work, that chasing money or waiting for money that will never come is part of the practice. There are criminal defense lawyers that get paid, sorry if you don’t know any, and not getting paid is not “part of your practice,” unless you let your practice run you instead of running your practice.

So let me tell you what I hear — you probably hear it too — or say it to yourself, and how to make it stop, and stop now…

Never do a stitch of work without being paid. No exceptions. If you do work without being paid and don’t get paid, that’s your fault, not the client’s.

Never enter into a payment plan that will take longer than three months, as long as the case will take at least six. Now these numbers are not hard and fast, but you morons out there quoting $5,000 fees and taking $500 down and $500 a month on a case that will take 90 days to resolve, what the hell are you doing? You just quoted a $1,500 fee. You want $1,500, quote $1,500.

You’re not a bank. If the client needs a payment plan, that’s for a bank, family member, or a friend, not you. Never, ever take a case for less than half of what you are quoting if it’ s a flat fee. This is of course if you’re too weak-kneed to get it all up-front. If it’s hourly, never take a case for less than ten hours up-front.

Clients have the money, they just don’t want to spend it. They will hold onto as much as they can, and if they can screw you for the balance, they will. They’re not stupid, they know you are too much of a wimp to sue them (oh God, my malpractice carrier will get mad at me, or my deadbeat client will lie to the Bar about me.) Grow up, you’re a lawyer, and you deserve to be paid for your services. You want to be a bank, you want to get screwed, keep doing your silly “affordable payment plans” and complaining about how you’re not getting paid.

Now let’s talk about the deadbeats.

When you’re working on an hourly is where you can get screwed. You took a $5,000.00 retainer (didn’t make it non-refundable because “civil lawyers don’t do that,” or more importantly, your state doesn’t allow them), and after a couple months of sending bills for a few thousand dollars a month, you hear crickets. Your calls to the client go unreturned, and you’re aware that the client is getting your emails and calls and just hiding from you.

Why do you keep working on the case?

My guess is that your retainer agreement doesn’t say “the client agrees that should any invoice remain unpaid for (whatever time period is good for you, 30, 60, 90) days, the attorney will cease working on the matter, and if the matter is in court, the client agrees to the attorney’s withdrawal.”

No, here’s what you love to say: “I don’t want to do anything because of my relationship with this client.”

Relationship? Are you kidding me. Are you sleeping with the client? (I and your State Bar hope not). Is the client your mother or best friend? No, you just don’t want to lose the client because they’ve sent you work or have had other matters and may have more.

I don’t care, you have got to be so completely stupid to think that you actually have a relationship with that client when they are not paying you. Don’t you realize that all they are doing is taking advantage of your precious relationship?

Get. Out.

Lawyers who treat getting paid as an afterthought will be an afterthought themselves. This is not a charity, this is a profession, and professions are about both business and service.

One of the reasons you don’t get paid is because at the initial consultation you don’t take the time to discuss the retainer agreement and how you work. You’re too busy selling yourself and smiling when the check is written. Forget about that crap, and explain in detail all the scenarios in which lack of payment can create a problem. Explain that when money issues get in the way of your representation it creates a conflict, and you’d rather not have that conflict. Let the client know that if money issues arise, you’d really appreciate a call four days before the payment is due instead of 12 days after you’ve made two calls.

Paying is the client’s responsibility. Getting paid is yours. Stop pretending it’s okay for the client not to pay. Stop proving to deadbeat clients what they already know — that they picked a great lawyer because he does the work and doesn’t hassle them about the fee.

Or just continue to think it’s part of the practice because you’re scared.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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