Magazine article Business Credit

Pro Bono Work Should Be the Attorney's Decision before the Fact Not the Client's Decision after the Fact

Magazine article Business Credit

Pro Bono Work Should Be the Attorney's Decision before the Fact Not the Client's Decision after the Fact

Article excerpt

Debtors are Debtors

When discussing collections with others interested in the subject, I frequently emphasize the fact that a dog is a dog, a communist is a communist and a debtor is a debtor. This comment is meant to reduce the surprise that many of us experience when we see others acting like what they are.

A law firm's debtor clients are similar to debtors in other industries. Collectors will experience people who lie, stall, present unwarranted disputes, "lose" invoices, have real or imaginary cash flow problems, are missing a bookkeeper, use bureaucracy to their advantage, and require several intermediate check approving authorities; they are just plain "nice" folks when you catch them but will never return a collector's call. I could go on, but if you are involved in collection work, you can expand the list yourself.

In most manufacturing, wholesaling or service businesses, a collector has to deal with an internal sales staff. Collectors think that relationship is challenging to manage. However, there are usually enough policies and management support to cause the sales staff not to stray too far from good business practices. Most members of these types of organizations realize that they are in a business, and if they want to stay in business, cash flow is necessary.

A Different Culture

The difference in collecting for a law firm lies in the culture and mind-set of the members of the organization. Many attorneys feel that they are the CEO of their own little company, and they deeply resent anyone telling them how to run it. Accounts receivable control is not high on their priority list. These attorneys value relationships above being paid for their services. They haven't yet realized that a client who doesn't pay is not a client worth serving.

Frankly, the collector will probably not change the attorney who doesn't understand that he is in business selling legal services. Many a craftsman has mistakenly believed that all that was necessary to be successful was to produce a quality product. Belatedly, they learned that there were other critical factors to consider. If consideration of these other factors is not part of the firm's culture, the collector will find working in this environment to be very frustrating!

Some law firms have a more business-like view of recovering fees due, If not quite satisfactory from a collector's perspective, the culture in these firms is such that attorneys may be given some latitude to manage the accounts receivable, but beyond that point, the policies and culture cause the attorney with problem clients to take action. This environment will also cause the attorneys to be more cooperative and receptive to a collector's offer of assistance to recover money due the firm.

One of the first facts a collector must determine is where on the scale between the two above described firms is the firm for which she has an opportunity to work. Determine from the firm's administrative manager or partner responsible for financial management what the attorneys in the firm have been or will be told about the collector's authority and responsibility. Ask a lot of questions relating to when a collector gets involved, how the attorneys feel about collection activity, settlement or payment plan issues, uncooperative attorneys, collection tools available to the collector, performance objectives, reports required, internal communication network, computer hardware and software available, etc. The purpose of this fact-finding is to determine if the collector can be effective and relatively happy in the work environment.

Many firms are reluctant to use a collection agency, sue, or report a delinquency to a credit-reporting agency. These restrictions greatly reduce the tools available to the collector for dealing with a delinquent client. Therefore, a collector for a law firm will have to use good non-threatening collection skills. …

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