You Know the Law, Now Learn How to Run a Business

By Fleur Harris

May 9, 2016

Billing Habits, Practice 360

You're about to hang out your shingle, but are you ready to run and sustain your practice? Whether you are recently barred or have considerable experience under your belt, one thing is clear: excellent billing practices are key to attracting (and keeping) clients and getting paid.

On May 6 Claude E. Ducloux, an Austin-based attorney who has been in solo practice for 27 years, offered practical pointers for attorneys to efficiently manage their business and ensure client satisfaction. Ducloux's presentation, "Good Billing Habits: What They Don't Teach You in Law School," was one of more than a dozen free programs offered by the D.C.Bar at its second and highly successful Practice 360⁰ | A Day for Lawyers & Law Firms.

So beyond opening shop, what do attorneys need to know to survive in an especially challenging market? First, Ducloux said, attorneys must learn to set reasonable expectations on a range of outcomes with clients. It begins at the first interview.

"Listen completely," Ducloux said, stressing that for many people who seek the help of an attorney, healing begins when they are being listened to. "Be very empathetic. Don't cut them off."

To keep that bond of trust with a new client, lawyers must communicate often and provide options for clients to reach them, such as by e-mail. "The number one grievance [against lawyers] is that they don't communicate with clients," Ducloux said.

Ducloux's Top Billing Habits

1. Always have a written fee agreement. A good fee agreement covers the scope of the work, the basis of the fee, who will be working on the matter, communication methods, and office hours, among others.

2. Don't underestimate your fees. Discuss payment plans. In setting your hourly rate, consider the accepted range in your community. "You can't charge more, but you can't charge less," said Ducloux. "The client will remember the lowest fee you quoted."

3. Understand what does and doesn't belong in a trust account.

4. Figure out your personal budget. How much money do you need to operate each day? Ducloux suggested the four-hour-a-day method: successfully billing and collecting payments for at least four hours of work a day for 20 days a month.

5. Have a good billing system and incentivize clients to use the system. Ducloux uses the credit card payment solution from LawPay to bill clients and has had great success with it. Make it easy for clients to pay you, and for you to get paid.

6. Promptly send out bills and constantly follow up when they're not paid.

7. Record your time daily and don't use shorthand for services rendered. "Write out exactly what you did," Ducloux suggested.

8. Don't sue if you get burned. It's part of doing business. Unless your economic survival depends on it, Ducloux said, "don't sue clients. Go make new money."

Throughout the week, we'll be continuing our coverage of Practice 360º. Check back in for great practice management tips and lessons from the full-day event. 

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