Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pay Me, You Owe Me, Pay Me My Money Down

Have you ever heard that song "Pay Me My Money Down"?  Apparently it's been around for a long time - I've seen it described as a "traditional west indian sea shanty," whatever that means - but I first heard it a few years ago at a concert with my kids.  We went to see Dan Zanes, a kooky-looking guy who writes and performs kids music because, as he tells it, when he had a child and was trying to find some decent music, there wasn't any.  So he decided to make his own.  His concerts are fun; he rides a bicycle on stage, and it's really just musicians and their instruments without all of the gimmicks and characters that are so prevalent in children's music.  And he encourages the kids to get up and dance at any time during the show, which I absolutely loved.  If you're interested, check him out at

So why the discussion of a west indian sea shanty?  Well, friends, I have a struggle in my life that is weighing on my mind and the alternating line of this song keeps popping into my head:  "Pay me, you owe me, pay me my money down."  People don't want to pay their legal bills!  Now before you get your panties in a bunch, let me say this:  I have been a client of a lawyer and I know how awful it is to get a monthly bill and be shocked at the amount.  I know what it's like to realize that you've been charged for every communication you have had, no matter how short or seemingly inconsequential.  I know what it's like to get charged for every copy made, every fax sent, every stamp affixed.  I get it.  But here's the thing.  If you sign a contract for a lawyer's service, you are agreeing to pay that lawyer for the services provided.

I have a couple of clients who hired me on a contingency basis, which means that if they don't get money, I don't get money.  I'm not paid hourly, I'm paid a percentage of whatever money is recovered.  Sometimes that set up works to the lawyer's advantage - very little work with a big payout.  I've had one of those.  Other times it's a big financial loser for the lawyer - lots of work with a small payout.  I've had some of those, too.  It's a gamble, and it's part of the agreement.  It's an expensive gamble for the lawyer to take because litigation is not cheap, and the lawyer usually pays costs along the way.  If the lawyer is lucky, he or she will recoup those costs whether the case is a winner or not.  I haven't had that kind of luck.

I also have a couple of clients who hired me on an hourly basis.  This is the arrangement that is a problem for the clients because the bills add up more quickly than they expect.  If the client is lucky, they have a lawyer who will work with them to make payments.  I am one of those lawyers; I work with my clients because I realize many of us don't have hundreds or thousands of dollars laying around that we can comfortably part with.

Why on earth would you choose to pay hourly if you can get a lawyer's services on a contingency, you ask?  It usually depends on what kind of work the lawyer is doing.  If you are the person suing people, your lawyer will probably take the case on a contingency if he thinks you have a decent case.  If you are the one being sued, however, I don't know a single attorney who will defend you on a contingency.  "Defense" equals "hourly" almost all of the time. 

But here's the thing that is getting to me and is provoking the "pay me, you owe me" song.  Though I am willing to work with clients to ease their financial burden, I am not willing to work for free.  That means that I expect SOME payment every month, as a show of good faith that the client intends to keep her end of the deal and pay the balance in full eventually.  But that is not what's happening.  I have one client who has repeatedly requested that I "work with her" about the bill, and I have.  I reduced my hourly rate; I don't charge her for every communication; I reduce my travel expenses and only charge her one way; I let her perform tasks that I should have a professional do.  From my perspective, I have bent over backwards to make this as painless as possible for her.  My reward?  ONE payment in 6 months.  The bill is in 5 digits now.  And to make matters worse, she keeps asking me to do additional work!  Really? 

I like this client a lot, and I want to help her, so I am struggling.  The human side of me wants to see this through.  The business person/lawyer/single mother in me wants to terminate the relationship.  Ethically I'm somewhere in the middle; I can't really cut bait, but I don't have to continue to work for free.  I took her case because someone who matters to me professionally referred her to me.  What to do, what to do?  Oh, and did I mention that I did some work for her brother and he hasn't paid me one red cent?  Um, yeah.

I can't help but wonder: what makes them think that I don't need to be paid?  What makes them think that I can "carry" that kind of debt in my books?  I'm a solo practitioner starting a brand new business, for pete's sake.  It's a big fat mess.  So I continue, with that song playing in my head ...

Pay me, you owe me,
Pay me my money down,
Pay me or go to jail,
Pay me my money down.

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