I am the managing partner in a eight attorney firm in Nashville, Tennessee. We are exclusively a family law practice and while we charge a few client on a flat fee basis - most clients are time billed. We ask for a $5000.00 security retainer up front. After the retainer is used we invoice clients for additional time spent on a monthly basis. We are having problems getting paid and are having to write off a large amount of accounts receivable. I would appreciate your thoughts.
This is a common problem that I hear from family law as well as other firms representing individuals. The law firm collects the initial retainer, the retainer is used up, additional work is done, - often to the conclusion of the matter - the client is invoiced for the remainder of the time expended, and the bill either does not get paid or is paid partially. The law firm ends up writing off the balance.
The best solution is to require the retainer be replenished at a certain point and, within your state's ethical parameters, not perform additional work until the additional retainer is received. Recently a client told me that his office manager's number one responsibility is a daily review of unbilled time compared to unused retainer. When the unbilled time get to 90% used the client is invoiced for additional retainer. When 100% is reach work is stopped until the additional retainer is received.
With today's client billing systems that have integrated trust accounting, assuming that timesheets are entered directly and daily, an office manager or bookkeeper can simply print or review on screen a summary work in process report that shows for each matter the unbilled values for fees and costs, unpaid receivable, and retainer balances in the trust account. Matters with unbilled fees and costs approaching the retainer balance can then be invoiced for additional retainer. The key to making this work:
- All timekeepers must enter their own time via direct time entry and daily.
- Someone must be assigned the responsibility for daily monitoring and daily invoicing for additional retainer replenishment and help accountable.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC