The first rule for all Family Law attorneys is: do not work for clients that have no money in your trust account to pay for that work. Working for clients who do not have money in your trust account is the same as loaning the money to that client. Why would an attorney loan money to clients who cannot borrow that money from their family and friends?
Require a reasonable Advance Fee Deposit upfront
You know approximately what a case is going to cost when you contract with the client. Yes, there are exceptions, surprises, and cases that do not go as planned. But, for the most part, we know the fee range for our cases. Require a reasonable Advance Fee Deposit upfront. Do not get started behind the 8 ball. If they will not, or cannot, provide a solid Advance Fee Deposit, how are they going to pay for future work? How will they pay for the work you have already done?
Monitor each case for upcoming work, and estimate upcoming costs
Monitor each case for upcoming work, and estimate the upcoming costs. Request that the trust funds be replenished well in advance so that your client has time to make the deposit in a reasonable manner. Do not wait until the last minute to request additional funds; that will only cause more stress for everyone. At the conclusion of the case, it is better to refund the balance of funds held in trust to the client than it is to hope that you will eventually get paid for past services.
The truth is it is easy to work for clients without funds in trust. We are trained and committed to providing legal services. That is what we do. But, if we do not collect funds for providing those services, we will go out of business and not be there to provide service to anyone in the future.
Consistently manage your clients’ trust funds and always check that there are funds in trust
Managing your clients’ trust funds is a matter of self-training. It takes consistent effort. You must always check that there are funds in trust to pay for all upcoming work. Check before, not after, you have performed the work. It is easier to request funds in advance than to request payment after the work has been performed.
Not insisting on clients maintaining adequate funds in their trust to pay for future work is a slippery slope. The bigger you allow the arrearage to grow, the harder it will be for the client to bring their account current. So, you start delaying work for clients that are not paying. Then, you will have case deadlines coming at you that you have to perform. So, you will have to provide more “Free Work” for clients that are already not paying you. It is always easy for a client to say that your work was inadequate, and that is why they are not going to pay the balance owed.
You provide good legal service, you deserve to be paid for that service
If you are providing good legal service, you deserve to be paid for that work. It is your job to manage the trust funds for your client. Maintaining sufficient funds in trust to pay for upcoming work will lead to a better attorney-client relationship.
Frank, co-founder and senior partner of Divorce Lawyers for Men, has spent the last 40 years litigating complex legal claims. He is a Founding Member of the WSAJ distinctive Eagle Program; a Presidents’ Club member of the AAJ; and a member of Million Dollar Advocates, Washington State Bar Association, Thurston County Bar Association, and King County Bar Association Family Law Section.