I have a buddy who is a Seattle criminal lawyer. The other day I was having lunch with him and he was telling me a bunch of sob stories he has with his clients. No, it’s not that kind of a sob story, where the case is bad. The sob story was his – he was doing all this work for people and he wasn’t getting paid for it. I told him how to get his money, and then I thought I’d tell all of you.
First things first, get the fee agreement in writing. Typically when you are doing a criminal case it is a flat fee, meaning the entire fee is earned upfront and paid upfront (at least in theory). To make sure everyone understands what their obligations are it is important to get this in writing. This will be very handy later if your client “forgets” what the arrangements were.
Second, don’t take the client’s word that they are going to pay you. It’s not that they will intentionally lie to you (they will) but they will tell you pretty much anything you want to hear to get the help they need. Remember that these people are facing jail typically. They will worry about their inability to pay you after they make sure they aren’t going to jail.
Two ways to help ensure payment are:
(1) getting a credit card number that you can run each month on an agreed-to date.
(2) get a set of post-dated checks for the amount of the fee that you can cash on an agreed-to date. Most people won’t write bad checks and don’t see a credit card payment as hurting their bottom line. You get paid and they get help. Everyone wins.
Finally, if you are a criminal lawyer, you are going to have to get over the fact that you might be hurting someone’s feelings. What I mean is, when people don’t pay, or a check bounces, or a credit card payment doesn’t go through, you have to be ready to call them up and ask for your money. You have to be ready to let them know this criminal attorney doesn’t work for free and if they can’t pay you’ll have to get out of the case. It’s like I told my buddy, you can either be a jerk or a punk that’s not getting paid. Which would you rather be?