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The Newly Solo Attorney: Billing Issues

One of the most difficult aspects of solo practice I’ve had to wrestle with is how much should I charge for my work. Not only that, but there is the issue of whether to charge based on a billable hour or upon a flat fee rate. And what do I charge for, exactly? I’ve also had to consider whether, and when, to require an upfront retainer. At this point I’m still a newly solo attorney and these questions are far from settled for me.

Flat Fee vs. The Billable Hour

Any new solo has to determine whether to go with the billable hour, a flat fee arrangement, or other alternative fee structures. At this point in my solo practice, all of my clients have been involved in the entertainment industry. Although I have extensive experience in litigation, motion practice, etc., the work I’ve been focusing on in my new practice has been primarily transactional in nature. For example, I’ve been asked to prepare representation agreements, management agreements, distribution deals, label license agreements, and so forth. Because I already have a sense of how long it will take me to prepare these sorts of agreements, I’m able to project the approximate amount of work involved in each project. As a result, I’ve opted for flat fee billing for these projects. This has been a popular choice with my clients who appreciate the certainty of flat fee billing. For many of them, like many small businesses, it is comforting to know in advance how much the work will cost them. For these projects specifically, flat fee billing was an obvious choice. However, for other work, it may make less sense.

How Much Should I Charge?

When deciding your rate you have to consider many factors. For example, if your practice is new, you’ll likely want to offer a lower rate to provide an additional incentive to new clients. As a result, they may want to retain you because they can get an experienced attorney at a rate below what they would otherwise have to pay.

Another important aspect of this issue is the nature of your clients. As young musicians and small record labels, many of my clients wouldn’t be able to afford my old rate. It’s an industry I’m passionate about and I enjoy the work. As a result, at the moment, I decided I was willing to work below my normal rate in order to perform the type of work I am passionate about and enjoy.

If you do choose to perform work on a flat-fee basis, you have to be certain to consider all of the work involved in accepting a case (as discussed more in the next section).

What Work Do You Charge For?

The next question I found that I would have to confront is what work to charge for. As a truly solo attorney with no staff, I have to handle every aspect of the case from organizing my files, preparing retainer agreements, and offering initial consultations. Consultations alone present the issue of whether or not to charge for them. Many of these initial consultations take significant time. There are many options available including offering free consultations, offering paid consultations, and offering a paid consultation that is applied towards the final bill if they decide to hire you. Because of the nature of the work I’ve been retained to do so far (i.e. drafting contracts), I’ve opted to offer free consultations.

But it’s important to remember that each case also may involve work such as drafting a unique retainer agreement, research, later revisions of the work performed, filing & service, travel time, and more. Whether or not you choose to work on a billable hour or a flat-fee agreement, you’ll need to consider the amount of time involved in performing these tasks.

Retainers

A final consideration is whether or not to require a retainer before you begin work. Factors that might influence this decision include whether you’ve worked with this client before, their financial position (if known), and even their geographic location. Personal factors can even be an issue. For example, in some cases I already have established relationships with some of my clients through my other business. In those cases, I require a smaller retainer than for clients who I’ve had no experience working with.

Your Feedback

As you can probably tell, defining my billing policies is still a work in progress. I’d truly appreciate any feedback or comments other solos can offer as to what has worked for them and what hasn’t. Let me know in the comments.

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