Walking the Talk: Being Honest About Money
When it comes to legal fees, transparency pays off.
I often dwell in the land of financial obfuscation—otherwise known as premarital agreement planning and divorce mediation. Almost every day I meet with clients who are reluctant to speak the truth about their own financial situation, or face their deepest fears and concerns about their partner’s needs and wishes. Whether they are wrestling with questions as to who should pay for the house or deal with the accumulated credit card debt, or arguing after the fact as to who should absorb the loss of the ill-conceived house renovation project, resentments and anxieties about money often cloud the conversation.
One of the tasks I’m hired to perform—and it’s something lawyers do nearly every day—is to help my clients straighten out these messy entanglements. It only seems appropriate, therefore, for me to make it a priority to hold my own business conversations to the same standard I bring to their financial concerns. If you expect your clients to honor their agreements with their business partners and spouses, shouldn’t you strive to honor your own business agreements?
It starts with being honest about the nature and scope of your anticipated work. Most clients don’t really know what lawyers do on their behalf, and it’s important, especially for new clients, that you explain your tasks in simple-to-understand terms. You also want to be sure to explain how the time flows in your particular legal arena. I spend much of my time negotiating with other lawyers, either by phone or email, and it can be hard to explain to clients why this can take so long. The additional hours I devote to educating my clients and coaching them about their goals and our strategies also can seem mysterious to clients. If I’m not able to demonstrate to them why these tasks take as long as they do and why they are so important, there’s a risk that I may have problems collecting my fees when they receive my invoices.
Honesty sometimes requires some painful disclosures, and even some monetary concessions. If you happened to choose a strategy that didn’t pan out well, you may need to discount your fees a bit as part of an acknowledgment of the wasted time. On the other hand, if your client pushed you to make arguments that you thought were lacking in merit—and you told them so—then it’s only fair that they bear the entire burden of the squandered hours. I always try to quantify the likely fees involved in any particular strategy, so my client will understand why choosing that path resulted in the fees that were incurred.
It’s a two-way street. If you send the message that open discussion of financial issues is welcomed, you will also be signaling to your clients that they need to be honest with you, both about their legal goals and their financial limitations. I recently had a discussion with a client about the prospects of his buying out his spouse’s share of their home, but once he fully disclosed his constrained circumstances, I was able to tell him that this wouldn’t be a fruitful strategy to pursue, thus saving him a lot of money on a negotiation that would have gone nowhere. Similarly, pursuing endless pre-trial motions on small battles without knowing the limits of your client’s litigation budget is foolhardy—and likely to lead to a large unpaid bill.
Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in Oakland, has managed his practice for more than 25 years.
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