Why I Won’t Let My Clients Set My Fees: It’s Not Their Job to Do My Work

Over at Slaw.ca, one of my very favorite bloggers, Jordan Furlong, offers up a couple of innovative alternative billing ideas, including a recent and somewhat controversial initiative of 300 lawyer, UK-based CMS Cameron McKenna: letting clients decide what to pay. Though many might assume that if left to their own devices, clients would pay their lawyers as little as possible, Jordan contends  that lawyers who have taken the time to build trusted relationships with their clients can also trust that their clients will voluntarily pay what’s fair.

Like Jordan, I too agree that lawyers and clients in a trusted relationship will treat each other fairly. And that’s precisely why I’m not fond of DIY pricing — because asking a client to assign value to legal services isn’t a favor or a privilege. Instead, it’s an imposition that transfers to clients our responsibility as lawyers to come up with the right price for our services.

I put myself in my clients’ shoes. When I engage a service provider — whether it’s a contract lawyer or logo designer or consultant — I’ll usually explain the scope of work, and describe if I want something very simple, middle of the road or complex. Generally, the providers who “get it” will come back with a price and scope of work that’s exactly in my range. And because they’ve taken the time to figure out what I want, they make my life easier. By contrast, if I have to come up with the number, I’d forever struggle over whether I’m offering too little (and insulting a provider with whom I have, or desire a good working relationship) or too much (in which case, the provider may give me more than I really wanted or needed).

Likewise, when I price a project just right, I take satisfaction at the sound of approval in my clients’ voice – whether it’s a sense of relief that the project won’t cost as much as they expected, or an affirmation that it’s essentially what they expected. Though there are some projects (like appeals) where I can size up the case and quote a price fairly quickly, other times, I struggle to get it right. But that’s my job, not my client’s.

Asking clients to price services isn’t the only burden that lawyers impose on our client in the guise of improving client service. These days, service providers bombard customers with
surveys seeking feedback for the company, but offering nothing to customers in return for filling them out. Sometimes I wonder whether all this talk about trusted client relationships and great client service is really all about clients and our obligation to serve or all about us (indeed, even Zappo’s, one of the icons of customer service, points out that when customers are satisfied, they’ll do the marketing for you.)

As usual, I agree with Jordan that “trust is at the core of any successful client interaction.” But for me, it’s not enough to just win the hearts and minds of my clients; I strive to read their minds as well, so that I can make their lives just a little easier. And that’s not something that I’d ever ask my clients to put a price on because as a lawyer, that’s part of my job.