Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 55 seconds

What to Do When Clients Don’t Pay

There's nothing more annoying than a deadbeat client. But, there are steps you can take to make this situation less onerous or to even avoid such situations altogether.

Identifying Problematic Clients Before You Get Stiffed

“The best time not to represent a client is at the beginning,” says Terry Zimmerman, a collections attorney from Akron, Ohio, who recently retired after 39 years of practicing law. Although the adage of ‘not judging a book by its cover’ might be appropriate when selecting reading material, there are telltale indications a would-be client may not pay his or her bill, Zimmerman says.

“If a client tells you they went to an attorney who has a good reputation but that attorney did not take the case, consider there’s probably a good reason why," he says. "The client might not be a good risk.”

A client who admits to have spoken with other lawyers prior to coming to you is likely shopping for the best price. "That’s another red flag,” Zimmerman says. Another clue is “when they ask the cost of a ‘simple divorce’ or a ‘simple bankruptcy,’” he says. The general public doesn’t generally appreciate what truly constitutes a case as ‘simple’ or ‘complex,’ so asking for a price upfront without explaining the variables of the matter are a red flag they won’t pay, Zimmerman suggests.

Robert B. Walker, an estate planning, collections and creditor’s rights bankruptcy attorney in Reston, Virginia, says he “worries about the ones who have been paying regularly but suddenly become slow pay.” When that happens, the client is generally not happy with the representation they are receiving or perhaps believe they are being overcharged.

Another clue a client isn’t likely to pay their legal fees? “If a client nit-picks your bill, you probably have a problem,” Walker says. One way to minimize financial exposure, Zimmerman says, is to “get some money up front.” Besides, he says, that’s a great way to learn where the client banks, useful information in case the lawyer pursues a collection matter against the client in the future.

What to Do When a Client Doesn’t Pay

It might seem elementary, but before initiating any type of litigation, it’s imperative to know who the actual defendant is. If, for example, a lawyer represents Joe’s Autobody, but not Joe himself, it’s wrong to pursue an action against Joe rather than the business, Zimmerman says.

Therefore, when representing a company, Zimmerman says it’s imperative the lawyer obtain a personal guarantee in writing that Joe has the authority to hire the attorney on behalf of the business. Once a determination is made as to whom the defendant is, the next step is to review the fee agreement signed by the client and the attorney.

According to the Code of Professional Responsibility, written agreements are only required in contingency fee cases, “but it’s a good practice” to use them in all matters, Zimmerman says.

Walker says “he comes and goes” on the use of written fee agreements. On one hand, they spell out the terms governing the professional relationship between the lawyer and client. However, they can also lengthen the attorney’s malpractice exposure in states like Virginia, where the statute of limitations for collecting fees and pursuing legal malpractice matters differs depending on whether a written fee agreement was used or not.

Zimmerman also cautions lawyers contemplating legal action against deadbeat clients to consider whether it might also expose them to a malpractice claim initiated by a disgruntled client. Another matter to consider is whether the debt in question is consumer-oriented or not, Walker says.

“There should be a determination made as to whether the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and any state version, govern such collection by one attorney for a client attorney,” he says. When a lawyer tries to collect legal fees owed, such legislation does not apply. However, an outside collection agent might be deemed a ‘collector’ subject to Federal and state laws. Other rules govern the collection of past due legal fees, says Steve Smith, President and Founder of GrowthSource Coaching, a California company that educates business owners and other professionals about improving their companies.

For example, ABA Model Rule 1.5 governs fee types and fee arrangements. “One of the overriding principles is the concept of the reasonableness of fees. The overwhelming, number one reason why people avoid paying their bill is the client has decided the fees were unreasonable for the service they received,” he says.

Absent exigent circumstances, such as being up against a statute of limitations, Walker likes to send a demand letter to the client, now potential defendant, when legal fees are overdue. If nothing else, doing so helps determine whether the lawyer has the debtor’s correct address.

Smith’s approach is similar. First, he suggests sending a pleasant letter reminding or informing the client of their past due account. If a week passes with no response, he advises placing a personal call to the client to try to determine why they haven’t paid their bill or responded to the letter.

“Get them on the phone to discuss installments or even reduce the overall balance,” Smith says. No matter what is said during the conversation, he implores the lawyer to maintain a “good business decorum.” Follow up with one email a week for the next three weeks, imploring the client to pay their bill. Each missive should communicate the “increasing severity” of the matter so the client understands the gravity of the situation.

If, after 30 days, payments are still not forthcoming, it’s “time to make an assessment,” about whether to sue the client for the fees they owe, Smith says. Factors to consider include the size of the past due balance and the costs involved with hiring an outside agency or lawyer to collect the debt, assuming the case will be farmed out.

Walker cautions lawyers about handling their own collection matters. “The ability to be objective is not as great when you are representing yourself," he says. "When your professionalism is challenged, it’s hard to be objective.” 

What Not to Do

There are several steps to avoid when seeking to collect an overdue client balance. According to Smith, do not:

  • Contact the client’s family members or friends to discuss
  • Contact an employer to seek the garnishment of wages, since a judgment is needed to initiate a garnishment
  • Allow the situation to impact your effectiveness in representing other clients

It’s also not wise to argue with the client over the past due account. Not only is that unprofessional, such behavior will likely infuriate the client and increase the likelihood he or she might file a malpractice claim. Lastly, if a lawyer seeks to hire you to collect his or her past due accounts, be sure to conduct a conflicts search before taking on the case. Do not pursue a collections case against a defendant if you represented him or her or a related entity in the past, Zimmerman advises.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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