Clear and simple billing practices for solo attorneys

Overhead view of solo attorney's desk with phone, laptop and calculator.

No one likes getting a bill, but there’s a right way to send one and a wrong way — multiple wrong ways, in fact. As a solo attorney, you’re in a unique position in that you can avoid the wrong ways, and thus make billing a competitive advantage to working with you.

Let us explain.

More experienced attorneys tell tales of a time when a bill would simply say “for services rendered,” and that was accepted. Today, attorney billing practices have changed. Most clients want an itemized bill that clearly sets out the fees charged for which elements of the representation. And yet, consumers of all types (not just legal consumers) can become confused and irritated when bills are too lengthy or so detailed that they raise more questions than they answer. The medical industry, for example, provides a cautionary tale. It’s a frequent gripe that medical bills provide so much specificity that the patient feels like they are being nickel and dimed, and in the end, there is so much information that the bigger picture is lost.

At large law firms, individual attorneys don’t have too much say in how, when, or why their clients are billed. But since you’re in solo practice, it’s a different story for you. Bills are a fact of any legal practice, but you can take something many clients (and attorneys!) find unpleasant and turn it into something positive and powerful. Here are a few recommendations for how you can devise a sensible billing strategy:

Put yourself in their shoes.

A common fear many legal clients have is that their matter will be expensive, perhaps more than they can afford. Recognize this common concern and try to address it head-on. For example, if you can share a price range for comparable matters you’ve handled in the past, a new client would probably appreciate that. If you sense there’s some sticker shock, gently remind the client what this expense is buying them, so to speak. Don’t try to scare them, because that puts the relationship on uneasy footing, but do try to illustrate what the client is getting for this expense: peace of mind that the matter is handled, a sense of assurance that they have met their responsibilities, and so on. Tying the expense to the benefit makes value seem clearer.

Set expectations from the outset.

Many legal clients haven’t worked with an attorney before, so they don’t know what to expect. At the beginning of an engagement, you should make clear to the client how much they will be charged, for what, and how to pay. Stating your hourly rate isn’t sufficient if you also plan to bill for things like paralegal support or document services, since those will likely be seen as a surprise when they’re added to the final tally. If you’re using an alternative fee model, make sure to spell out exactly what that fee model includes and if there’s any possibility you may need to stray beyond its parameters.

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Aim for the right level of detail.

You would be displeased if you brought your car in and got an invoice that said, “Fixing the noise customer complained about.” At the same time, you don’t want three pages listing out every step taken, and you don’t have the knowledge to evaluate if every one of those steps was necessary. A good level of detail to aim for is that of a restaurant bill. It spells out what you ordered, what the charges were for each item, and the final amount. Your law practice isn’t a restaurant, of course, but that approach might not be such a bad one. What you want to do is be clear without overwhelming the client with so much information that it becomes hard to process.

Remember: the buck stops with you.

A major advantage of being a solo attorney is that you decide what’s working and what isn’t. That isn’t true at larger law firms, where it seems like there are miles of red tape to wade through to make even a simple change. But you answer only to yourself and can make changes when it becomes clear they’d be a smart move. You should feel empowered to take the steps that are right for your clients and right for you.

There’s a reason we ended this post on that final bullet point. The job of a solo attorney is a difficult one, but it comes with its advantages. Billing can be an advantage, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first, and you’re in position to make it happen.

To learn more about how you can set your practice apart, download our complimentary guide “Differentiating Your Solo Firm in a Crowded Marketplace.”

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