Monitoring the Bills: The Benefits of Mid-Month Updates With Clients
To improve the odds of getting paid, keep clients in the loop on the status of the work—and the bills.
I was asked to advise a client a few years back on the problems she was encountering when it came to getting paid by her clients. While she wasn’t a lawyer, her situation is illustrative of the problems many lawyers face in this territory. We spoke for an hour or so about the chronic problems she was having, and when I got to the bottom of her situation, it turned out that the major rift she was experiencing was that her clients didn’t realize how much her services were costing them, and so they were surprised and rather upset when the bills arrived. She had already learned the benefit of sending out monthly bills, so the amounts at stake were relatively modest. But when I asked her if she was keeping her clients informed on her hours during the course of the month, she replied that she couldn’t do that, because her bookkeeper only came in once a month to compile the invoices. My advice was simple: she needed to input her bills weekly, at a minimum, and have ready access to her billings so she could communicate the status to her clients. A few months later she reported to me that the problem with her client payments had mostly disappeared, simply as a result of her giving a “heads up” to the clients when there were exceptionally large amounts of activity mid-month.
I check my pending billings at least once a week, both for my own purposes and for the benefits of my clients—and to increase the likelihood that I’ll get paid for the work I am doing. It really is quite simple. I scroll down my list of clients, and glance at the column where my billing program shows how the total additional fees since the last invoice was sent out. I can readily spot if it’s an unusually large amount—or if nothing is happening on that matter.
There are multiple benefits of this exercise. If nothing has been billed so far that month, it might remind me that there is something I should be doing for that client—and it’s good to get that reminder before your client complains about the pace of the matter. If nothing is pending, it can serve as a trigger to be in touch with my client (or the opposing counsel), asking when the draft agreement is forthcoming or when our next meeting is going to happen. Never underestimate how satisfying it is for clients to hear from you before they have to nag you! You will always want to be open to hearing that the matter has been resolved without you or there are further delays anticipated
but in most instances the reminder will prompt your client to get back to you with something important for you to handle. And guess what: that leads to more billable time for you!
The biggest benefit is one that goes to the heart of getting paid as a lawyer. Whenever there is an unusually high amount of work happening mid-month, you want to alert your client so they can anticipate the higher-than-usual bill, or ask you to change course if necessary. I recently mediated a fee dispute between an attorney and her client, and the client’s main complaint was that she wasn’t kept informed on how big the bill was getting. The lawyer’s response was reasonable, saying that the client knew what activities were taking place and, as she said, “she could do the math and know what the bill would be.” While that may be technically true, most clients don’t know everything that is happening in their matter, and more to the point, they don’t always make a realistic connection between time spent and money due. Sending them an email that says that the bills are racking up brings the issue to their conscious mind, and gives them an opportunity to say “wait, this is more than I can afford to pay.” That will, in turn, force you to have an essential conversation with your client about what are the best options given this concern. Sometimes your client will tell you to slow down the process, or defer taking certain action for the time being. In most instances you can wait until the end of the month to have these conversations, but in anomalous situations where there is a spike in activity in the early part of the month, alerting your client is a very good thing to do.
And then, there’s a larger sort of personal benefit to taking on this task. There’s likely to be a deeper cognitive benefit in embarking on this practice: getting comfortable with the work/billing/fees “machinery.” It’s an exercise in taking stock of what you do each day, and seeing how it translates into bills to clients and then, hopefully, payments to you. A mid-month monitoring process ties you into this mechanism while you are doing your work each day, rather than just treating it as a dreary monthly task that you delegate to a bookkeeper or legal assistant.
And just as meaningful, you are letting your clients know that you care about the financial burdens on them, which will increase the likelihood that they will pay attention to your need to be paid when the invoice arrives at the end of the month.
Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in Oakland, has managed his practice for more than 25 years.