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Nothing But the Ruth!

Client Engagement Agreements: Blunt Terms I Wish I Could Include

By Ruth Carter

Earlier this year, I revamped my client engagement agreement, adding provisions I wish I’d always included and didn’t realize were missing until I encountered a problem with a client. I added terms that say I can increase my rate with notice to the client. I also added language that says if the client doesn’t pay their bill, the firm can take legal action to collect the balance and the client will pay for costs associated with collections.  

There’s so much more I want to say.

Brutally Honest Contracts

One of my newer hobbies is to write brutally honest or humous contracts, usually taking my friends’ real contracts and revising them to add personalized provisions.

For example, my friend is a marketing consultant and his preferred adult beverage is tequila. So, I added a provision to his contract that says the penalty for changing the date of his on-site meeting includes the cost of changing his travel plans plus a bottle of whatever is his favorite tequila at that time.

My Over-the-Top Client Engagement Agreement

Rewriting my own client engagement agreement (EA) template inspired me to write an over-the-top version with some of the things I wish I could include. I suspect I’m not the only lawyer who occasionally has these thoughts.

Nature of the Agreement

What my EA says: I will be the attorney primarily responsible for your legal work, although other firm personnel may assist me.

What I wish it could say: I will be the attorney primarily responsible for your legal work, although other firm personnel may assist me. Yes, this means your bill may include entries where I’m consulting another lawyer in the firm about your case, and it may include entries for work performed by other lawyers in the firm, as indicated by the lawyer’s initials. You don’t get to complain about your bill and say you only wanted to hire me and no one else in the practice, so you shouldn’t have to pay for their work.

Payment

What my EA says: Our work will be completed and billed on an hourly basis. Our attorneys’ rates range between $300 and $395 per hour, and our paralegals’ rates range between $150 and $275 per hour. My current rate for legal work is $300 per hour. Any urgent matters will be billed at $400 per hour. By engaging the firm, you acknowledge and agree that an attorney or paralegal may raise their rate at any time. You will be given notice via email when a practitioner’s rate has increased.

What I wish it could say: Our work will be completed and billed on an hourly basis. Our attorneys’ rates range between $300 and $395 per hour, and our paralegals’ rates range between $150 and $275 per hour. My current rate for legal work is $300 per hour. Any urgent matters will be billed at $400 per hour. Who determines if something is “urgent”? I do! If you proverbially set your life on fire and then dump it in my lap, you pay for the privilege of me putting my life on hold to fix yours. By engaging the firm, you acknowledge and agree that an attorney or paralegal may raise their rate at any time. You will be given notice via email when a practitioner’s rate has increased. If your matter drags on for years and my rate goes up in the interim (likely due to my increased skill and experience), you’re going to pay what I’m worth at that time.

(Actually, I wish this section header could be “Pay Your F**king Bill.” Dealing with non-paying clients is one of the biggest headaches as an eat-what-you-kill lawyer.)

Minimum Charge

What my EA says: The minimum charge for every activity is 0.2 hours.

What I wish it could say: The minimum charge for every activity is 0.2 hours. Even if something “only takes two minutes,” we’re billing you 0.2 hours for it, and here’s why. Not only do I have to do the work for you, but then I have to go into our billing software, identify you by client number and matter number, and enter what I did with enough specificity that if you contest your bill in one month, six months, or maybe two years from now, I can remember what I did, and an outside party (whose job it is to determine whether I charge a reasonable amount for the work performed) can see that I didn’t overcharge you.

That, plus the work I did for you, will easily take 7 minutes or more, and that’s why you get billed 0.2 hours when I leave you a voicemail.

Retainer

What my EA says: A $2,000 retainer is required for this project. Please note: This is not a flat fee for this matter. We will put your retainer into a trust account and bill against it. When this amount is exhausted, you will receive an invoice for the balance due.

What I wish it could say: A $2,000 retainer is required for this project. Why do all the lawyers on TV say they don’t get paid unless you do? Those are personal injury attorneys, and they only take cases where there’s an insurance company behind the wrongdoer who’s going to pay. Most of the rest of us get paid upfront in case it’s the only time you voluntarily pay us. You’d be amazed by how many clients stiff their lawyers. Please note: This is not a flat fee for this matter. We will put your retainer into a trust account and bill against it. When this amount is exhausted, you will receive an invoice for the balance due.

Electronic Communications

What my EA says: We communicate from time to time with our clients using email, mobile phones, and fax machines.

What I wish it could say: We communicate from time to time with our clients using email, mobile phones, and fax machines. Yes, we have a fax machine. We know — the 1980s called and they want their technology back. There are government entities that make us fax stuff instead of attaching documents to an email or using some type of secure online portal.

Termination

What my EA says: Either the firm or you may terminate the engagement at any time for any reason by written notice, subject on our part to applicable Rules of Professional Conduct. In the event that the firm terminates the engagement, we will take reasonable steps to protect your interests in this matter.

What I wish it could say: Either the firm or you may terminate the engagement at any time for any reason by written notice, subject on our part to applicable Rules of Professional Conduct. In the event that the firm terminates the engagement, we will take reasonable steps to protect your interests in this matter. Top three reasons we’ll fire you as a client: 1) You’re not taking our advice and we feel there’s nothing more we can do for you; 2) You’re not paying your bill; or 3) You’re an asshole. We’ll also fire you if we think you’re using your company to conduct illegal activities, but that rarely occurs.

And One Last Provision

There’s one more provision that I wish I could include in my client engagement agreement:

We’re Lawyers, Not Psychics

If the law were easy, we wouldn’t need lawyers. We can’t and don’t make any guarantees regarding the outcome of your case. Please don’t ask whether a certain strategy will work or ask for a percentage indicating how sure we are that things will go your way. There are too many factors that are out of our control, including the opposing party’s and their counsel’s behavior. This is especially true if a third party, like a judge or arbitrator, decides the outcome of your matter. We can only counsel, advise and make recommendations. Ultimately, you make the decisions about how you want to proceed.

The Upside of Being Blunt in Your Client Engagement Agreement

I shared some of the terms of my humorously blunt client engagement agreement in my newsletter, “Ruth & Consequences.” Some readers responded that they appreciated it included explanations behind the provisions. One reader even suggested that I use the funny version as my engagement agreement — except for the few times I cursed, of course.

If you’d like to read the full version of the humorously blunt version of my engagement agreement, please send me an email. (No strings attached.)

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Ruth Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at GeekLawFirm.com and UndeniableRuth.com.

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