You’ve had your initial consultation. You’ve counseled your new client on the services they need, and they are ready to sign the engagement letter. But then you ask for their retainer, and they look at you like you’ve got three heads.
“You want HOW MUCH?!?!”
Sound familiar? You know what you are worth, and used to defending your fees, but this still isn’t a fun conversation. Even worse is when you have to call the client to collect what they owe you for services already rendered.
I have some bad news for you: it doesn’t get easier with time. Still, there are some things you can do to get out of your way and start getting paid.
That’s right – I said it. You’re most likely the problem. Money, like everything else in this world, comes to those who ask for it. You cannot be passive about your fees if you want to build a firm, or just pay your mortgage.
Ask yourself this: “What’s my money story?”
Your money story is the stuff you tell yourself about money. Like, “there’s never enough money,” or “I can never get ahead,” or “I’ll bargain hunt for days before I buy anything at retail.”
If what you tell yourself about money comes from a point of view of always lacking money, you may be negotiating with yourself before your client even has the opportunity. You’re discounting your fees before they even ask. Or maybe you are simply apologizing for being so expensive. Or maybe you feel the need to defend what your services cost before the client even objects.
But the fact is this: your work has value. You deserve to be paid for what you do. So does your staff.
If you were collecting the money for a client, you wouldn’t hesitate. You wouldn’t be defensive about the amount owed. You wouldn’t even consider a discount or accept less than what your client deserved without a good reason. But when you are trying to collect your fees, there’s hesitation.
I get it. Lawyers are expensive. You know that. The client knows that. The bottom line is this: most people can afford to buy things they want and need. If they don’t have the money for something they want or need, they find a way to get it. Period. If they want and need a lawyer to provide services to them, they will find a way to pay for those services. And honestly, the client who cannot afford you needs to go to Legal Aid or Legal Zoom anyway.
This is the one time that your client is sitting across the table from you in a negotiation instead of on the same side. Maybe that’s the problem.
Try this: sit next to your client when you present your fees. Don’t passively email them an engagement letter after the consultation. Don’t present your fees like the client is an adversary. Go over the fees with them right then and there, while you are sitting next to them at the conference room table. Give them a good faith estimate of how many hours you expect it to take. Be clear that unforeseen circumstances may mean that your fees are higher than anticipated.
Answer their questions, but don’t get defensive. Be matter of fact about it. “This is what we charge. This is what your retainer will be. Would you like to put that on a credit card?”
If the client asks you for a discount, ask them why they feel they are entitled to a discount. Don’t be snotty about it, but sincerely asking them that question will put them on the spot. Unless they are a close friend or family member (or maybe a senior or a service member, whatever your policy is), don’t budge. If they indicate that they cannot afford the fee, you can always offer to do less work for a lower fee. If they really cannot afford you, don’t take on their work.
I know it’s easier said than done. But if you can get over this hurdle – talking about money with your clients – you will finally earn what you are worth.
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