There are three keys to success if you are going to be a sole practitioner of the law, or part of a very small firm:
You have to get the work.
You have to do the work.
And you've got to get paid for the work.
It's that last prong that proves the most difficult. It is also the piece that is not taught in law school.
But as every private practice lawyer knows, income is based on billing. Some work is on contingency, like personal injury work, where the lawyer gets paid if the client wins. Other cases have a set pay time, such as estate cases in which the attorneys are paid when the case is settled.
Yet in much of the law, when clients have run through their retainers, there will come a time when lawyers have to reach out to clients -- for their wallets.
Technology has made billing easier than it used to be.
Amy Cunningham, a sole practitioner in Greensburg, uses legal billing software that is always running in the background of the computer.
The computer keeps track of the length of time she is working on a case, if the phone rings and she switches clients, she clicks the computer button, then clicks it again as she moves back to what she was doing.
"If you have a retainer, that works well, but if the retainer has run out, then chasing after the fees that are owed is time consuming and frustrating," she said.
It's particularly galling, said James B. Lieber, an attorney in Shadyside, when the client has a positive result and then still won't pay the bill.
Despite the reputation of the profession, some attorneys are reluctant to take their clients to court for their fees.
"We have left a lot of money on the street," said Sam Hens Greco, who has a small Downtown practice.
Mrs. Cunningham has filed lawsuits against two clients for non-payment. Mr. Lieber said he has gone after one client in his 30 years of his current practice.
Billing, he said, is the business part of the practice.
"It's like purchasing: You try to figure out the right way to purchase and the right vendors to deal with," he said.
He said the trick is to get the right procedures in place to get the bills out, and to get them out in a timely fashion.
"If you don't, you won't be in practice for very long," he said. "It needs to be efficient, transparent and not done in haste, but frequently and regularly."
Mr. Hens Greco used to spend an entire day putting together bills when his wife, who is now a judge, worked in his practice as a family lawyer. Now, he said, between contingency cases and estates, that time has been reduced.
Mrs. Cunningham said it takes a good chunk of a day every month to get the bills out the door. "If I was independently wealthy, I would do all [child] custody cases," she said. But parents of young children also usually don't have a lot of money, so she needs to add other types of work to her case load.
Mr. Lieber, whose practice has five attorneys, fills out his time log by hand as he goes, then turns it over to be billed. He reviews the bills before they go out.
Much of his own work takes years to get paid for, because he works on federal civil rights cases in which the defense pays fees after the case is resolved. That's why, he said, he makes sure he has a mix of different types of cases.
In the case of a client who isn't paying, Mrs. Cunningham said an attorney has to be very careful, and patient before filing a lawsuit to collect those fees.
First, the relationship has to be severed correctly.
"You need to tidy up the end of the relationship as much as the beginning of the relationship."
A letter should go out to the client from the lawyer explaining that the relationship is over. If there is anything pending in a case, the attorney needs to file a notice with the court, officially withdrawing as the attorney.
And then the attorney often has to wait, sending out bills, but taking no other action for a couple of years.
That's because a former client sued for fees can file a claim for malpractice, if the statute for filing such a claim hasn't expired. And liability insurance carriers hate those, Mrs. Cunningham said.