Responding to Fee-Related Complaints
Here are the core practices that you should follow in your response to a client's complaint about fees.
Regardless of the merits of any fee-related dispute—and more on that topic in the next post—it is absolutely crucial that you handle your response to any client’s fee-related complaint in a respectful, genuine and timely manner. Whenever I have listened to clients who griped the most about the fees charged by their attorney, their primary focus seemed to fall as much on the disrespectful manner of the lawyer’s response as on the substantive position taken by their lawyer. Clients don’t generally know what a particular statute in the Civil Code says or whether a trial strategy was really ineffective, but they certainly know how many days it took for you to respond to their email.
Here are the core practices that you should follow in your response to any complaint about fees:
- Fee-related discussions are never billable, ever. Make sure your clients know that up front, and remind them whenever you respond to a fee-related complaint. Nothing is worse than having a client fear they are going to get billed when they call to complain about a bill! At times a fee-related discussion is embedded in a substantive conversation, and so you will need to be conscious of when the topic changes and you can properly bill for part of the conversation. The same no-charge policy applies for providing documents or back-up information about bills.
- Try to shift your attitude towards billing inquiries from that of irritation to one of appreciation. Having a client ask you about what you did and why it cost what it did is a sign that your client is paying attention and is concerned, and that is a good thing. It is certainly far better for the client to come to you and express their dissatisfaction than sitting quietly and stiffing you or even worse, suing you for malpractice. Their complaint should be seen as a way of reaching out for explanation and communication and you should welcome the overture as an opportunity to explain what you did on their behalf.
- Even if you are considering cutting them off as a client, they own their file and they have a right to receive all the documents in your possession, even when they aren’t paying you. The State Bar rule is unambiguous in this regard, and you definitely do not want to trigger a State Bar investigation over something as trivial as not delivering a file. You have the right to charge your client a reasonable copying fee if the file is particularly thick, but even that is something you should do reluctantly. Compare the cost of copying a file to the potential increase in your malpractice rates if you end up getting sued, and you will see the benefit of this advice.
- Listen closely to the complaint and stay calm in explaining why you did what you did and why it took as long as it did. You should engage with your client under the assumption that she or he is simply lacking in information, which you are happy to provide. For some clients it is best to do this over the phone or in person, in part because they are asking for closer communication with you. It can be difficult for some people to take in new information—especially when they are upset—via email. I get it that talking or meeting with angry clients is neither fun nor productive from an income perspective, but if it ends up motivating a potential deadbeat client to pay you or avoiding a malpractice claim, it is worth the extra time. In most instances it makes good sense to follow up your conversation or meeting with an email explaining the fees, so that there is a clear record of your response to their complaint.
- Keep your focus on explaining the links between the strategy jointly embraced by you and your client, the nature of the tasks that you did to further that strategy, and the reasons why the work took the time that it did. If you recommended an approach that turned out to be ineffective, remind your client why the two of you adopted that plan at the outset—and why it wasn’t necessarily your fault if it went awry. I’m a fast worker and that’s one of the points I make when I explain my hourly rate to a new client. If I can accomplish a task in half the time it takes a younger lawyer, then my total fees will be less even if my hourly rate is high. But that rationale doesn’t apply when one is sitting in a meeting or waiting for a judge to take the bench, so that often takes some additional explanation. I point out that they are hiring me for my overall expertise, and if things take a bit longer than anticipated along the way that is simply the inevitable consequence of hiring me.
- It is always appropriate to point out the fees they have saved in other work you have done for their benefit. I remind my clients that I think about them a lot when I’m not in the office and I never charge for that sort of reflective review. I also put in a fair amount of time that isn’t directly billable, such as reviewing new court decisions or talking with colleagues about complicated developments in my field. I never hesitate to tell my clients about the ways in which they have benefited from that work, without the time ever showing up on their bill.
- I always pay close attention to the substance of their complaints—as opposed to just chucking them in to the “complaining client” box. It is essential that you be able to sum up the nature of the complaint, as if you were reporting back to your lawyer (or your supervisor) what the complaining client has alleged. You don’t have to agree with them to be able to accurately describe their complaint, and if you haven’t spent enough time listening to them you won’t be able to make a wise decision when it comes to your response.
Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in Oakland, has managed his practice for more than 25 years.
"The Art of Getting Paid" is a one-year series of blog posts that provides a comprehensive training to lawyers on how to get paid.
We welcome your questions and comments – and of course, your suggestions on how to master this insufficiently respected aspect of practicing law.