image  by Sheila Blackford   ©2014   I hear solos talking about the client who isn’t paying. Now usually this is a client who fell further and further behind on paying legal bills. Sometimes there was an initial retainer but that is usually long exhausted. The client is now ignoring your bills!

Assuming you feel you cannot “fire this client” for not paying you, I want to you if you have talked to your client about his or her client matter. Did you discuss a realistic appraisal of how long their case would be and how much it might cost based upon what your estimated fees and costs would be?

Communication about the likely expense of legal services is essential before setting forth on a client matter. But you may be saying, “it’s a little late now!” Not so. Sit down and review this client’s bills sent and not paid. How much is owing for how long? How much more fees and costs are likely to be be incurred? Does the client wish to pursue? Can you put your client onto a regular payment plan— such as $50 on the first and $50 on the fifteenth of the month. That is only $100 per month spread over the client’s two paychecks. Can you partially forgive the debt if the client can pay 50%-75% of what is owed to bring it current? Is this a client you are willing and able to help on a pro bono or partial pro bono basis? Can the client borrow money from a relative?

You may decide to do something yourself instead of ignoring your bills. Consider whether you can go forward in this representation. On the PLF website (www.osbplf.org) you’ll find an article, “How to Fire a Client.” See the practice aids and forms category on Disengagement Letters for the article and some sample disengagement letters. You will also see a sample agreement for charging a credit card which can be used for setting up a recurring charge to the client’s credit card in the category on fee agreements and engagement letters, “Fee Agreements: Authorization to Charge Credit Card.”

It is always wise to pick up the phone to check in with you client. If you feel uncomfortable, write out this telephone script and use some variation of it to get this situation resolved. At 45 days past the statement date, call your client and say, “Hello [CLIENT]. I just wanted to know if you got my monthly statement for [MONTH]? Is there some problem with the bill that is preventing you from paying it?” Then discuss your withdrawal, or offer a monthly payment plan or negotiate a settlement of whatever amount is past due. Remember the Oregon State Bar offers arbitration services for fee disputes. The important thing is not to ignore this situation.

Posted by SBlackford

Sheila Blackford is an Oregon attorney who has been a practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund since 2005. She loves writing, riding her horse, and taking long walks with her husband and their dog.

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