Pearls (and perils) of Per-diem

It might be a stretch to call per-diem court appearances “zen-like” or “other-worldly.” That being said, I have some philosophical observations about making multiple court appearances on behalf of other attorneys:

Treat your per-diem appearances as if you were appearing on your own case. If that means you care more about the case than the attorney who sent you, so be it.

If there is a major problem with a case, and you think the attorneys who sent you don’t know it, tell them. I’d want someone to tell me!

Sometimes it’s harder to do two appearances than twelve appearances.

If you don’t know what the case is about, you should find out before you say something stupid.

If you think you shouldn’t be making the appearance, you are probably right.

You shouldn’t handle both sides of an appearance.  Sometimes it’s tempting, especially if it’s a consent adjournment.  However, if you end up handling things by yourself too often, you could go blind.

If you have a choice to “go make the copies” or wait for someone else to “make the copies and bring them back for you”… go make the copies.

If an appearance has a lot of parties it’s efficient to be last, as long as you are not late.

The TV show most like per-diem court appearances was M.A.S.H., especially when they talked about “meatball surgery”.

In the movie “Defending Your Life” (one of my favorites…if you have never seen it, I highly recommend) there is a great scene featuring a per-diem lawyer (the one where Buck Henry fills in for Rip Torn).  If you know the movie, you know what I mean.  If you don’t, rent the movie (you’ll be glad you did).

If you are on an appearance with multiple parties and you know nothing (which happens all the time), and all the other parties are blaming one of the parties for causing the accident, invariably YOU are representing that party.

If you know what you are talking about (hey, it happens!), and the Judge asks the lawyers what the case is about…..talk first, and keep talking till someone tells you to stop.

If something screwy starts to happen on a per diem assignment, especially if you are appearing for an attorney the first time, document what is happening. I’ve had offices “abandon me” during an appearance (by not responding to calls from court, or not having anyone in authority in their office). It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve had it happen. My approach on these is to “protect the client” (as opposed to the lawyer), and next “protect myself.” I document the problem with an eye towards protecting myself in the event things really blow up. I know, sometimes all this extra work is not worth the $100 you might get paid (‘cause these bad guys will stiff you too), but you have to do the extra work and protect yourself.

In a desperate per-diem situation, (like when you can’t get an adjournment because the attorneys who sent you threw you to the wolves and you may take the blame for the bad result) when all else fails, there is always the truth.  I have told Judges exactly what happened to me, and had them adjourn the case one day, so the attorney of record could come in and take their medicine personally.

Sometimes other attorneys want to do per-diem work and be part of your “crew.” Not everybody can multi-task their appearances and maintain quality. Not everybody is ready to adhere to the per-diem “code of honor.”  (Code tenet #1…no client soliciting, ever) OK, there isn’t an actual code, but the thing is, not everybody is trustworthy. My approach is, I’ll try out a new person, carefully, and they have to earn trust. If they don’t understand this, I don’t trust them.

Finally, pay attention to collections! It does you no good to bill $100K and only collect $60K. This is especially bad when you have subbed out some of your work (and paid your crew). Most lawyers pay their per diems, but it only takes a few big stiffers to really hurt you. Here are a few tips:

1. Set balance limits for open credit and stick to them. I use $500 with new attorney clients. If they are beyond 30 days and $500, I call. This is very important. If they act like weasels about it, cut them off.

2. Related to #1 is, set yourself up to accept credit cards. If an attorney reaches $500 and more than 30 days, and they won’t at least make a payment by credit card, cut them off.

3. Beware of high volume clients who don’t pay all the bills. I hate when this happens and it happens with some regularity. Sometimes it’s innocent, and it happens if your bill is also your report, so it may go in the file and not to the check writer. The way to curb this is to send statements that are a compilation of the open bills. When I receive a payment for invoices that are later than some open invoices, I address this immediately.

4. Beware of round figure payments “on account.” This can be innocent enough, but it causes confusion. When this happens, send a memo indicating what invoices you applied the payment to, and confirming the open balance. In this memo you should ask that payments refer to specific invoices.

5. Share information with your competitors about the bad payers out there. This is more difficult than it seems. I only want to give this useful information if I am getting useful information. What do the non-paying vermin do when we share information about them? We sometimes see them coming to court themselves, which I always find gratifying. And sometimes they go lower in the food chain and rip off some new per diem. Sad but true.

6. Speaking of non-paying vermin, if some lawyer doesn’t pay me, and won’t work out payments with me, or make a credit card payment, I sue in Small Claims Court. Sometimes these lawyers play games when I do this, but I persist. One time, after some jokers adjourned my Small Claims case 3 times by asking for a hearing “by the Court,” they missed an appearance and I got a default judgment. I sent them a letter and they didn’t pay. So, what I did was, I paid a City Marshal $40 to serve a notice at their office (probably served on a secretary) saying that he was going to seize their furniture and computers and auction it off. Two days later I got paid in full with interest. They’ll never call me again, which is just an added bonus.

Gosh I love this business!

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “Pearls (and perils) of Per-diem

  • From CJ Stevens of Stevens Law:

    Well done, Barry Seidel!

    I am not and likely never will be a per diem attorney. But, to quote a movie, “You had me at hello.” Everything you said applies to me as a solo/no-staff family law attorney. Although I hired counsel to sue two non-paying clients, I trained myself to stop the charity work and withdraw after one bill goes unpaid.

    Your writing is also a pleasure to read. It’s spare and lean, yet it flows smoothly from one sentence to another.

    CJ Stevens

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