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Discussing money with clients: ‘We never talk about that’

Pam Pepper

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. Women of a certain era in the deep South have very strong views on the role of manners and appropriate behavior in everyday life.

My mother is no different. Don’t get the wrong picture — Melanie Wilkes she isn’t. My mother wears blue jeans and running shoes, has hiked the Grand Canyon, and knows how to use e-mail. But she has quite fixed views on manners and mores. For example, my mother still firmly adheres to the mandate that one should never wear white between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Handwritten thank-you notes are the only polite and acceptable response to any kindness. Salad forks go on the outside, entree forks on the inside. And — this one gets me to my point — never, ever discuss money.

In my mother’s world, discussing money is "tacky." I was frequently told that "we" don’t tell people how much we make, or how much something cost, or how valuable something is. Talking about filthy lucre is, well … filthy. A few years ago, I was profiled in a legal publication for a series on solo practitioners. One of the interview questions asked how much revenue my firm brought in annually, and I dutifully answered it. When my mother read the article, she was distressed that I had discussed how much money I "made," and instructed me to black out that portion of the article before sending a copy to my grandmother in Mississippi. It’s a pretty deep-rooted view.

So you can imagine the difficulties I encounter as a solo practitioner when it comes to the issue of fees. Since the day I began practicing on my own, I have always experienced some level of discomfort discussing fees with a potential or current client. Not only do you have to talk about the thing that my mother insisted "we" never talk about, but you have to talk about it in pretty great detail — how much, when, how. Then each month you have to talk about it again, through the bill and any conversations which arise out of the bill. And if clients fail to pay, you have to talk about it some more and maybe even take action beyond words.

Then there’s that other component of fees which conflicts with another of my mother’s maxims regarding valuing of one’s own self and services. My mother deflects any and all compliments. In her view, this is the polite and "lady-like" thing to do. If someone tells you, "You did a wonderful job!" you respond, "Oh, no, really, you did so much more than I did." My mother considers this and other tactics to be signs of humility, indications that she’s not arrogant or "full of herself." Yet when we as lawyers decide on the fee that we’ll charge for our services, one of the factors we have to consider is what value we, ourselves, have to bring to a client. Certainly this isn’t the only factor we consider — we figure in overhead costs, the going market rate, the financial status of the population we wish to serve. But there is that element of valuing ourselves — how much is our time worth?

That’s a tough one for me, having had sustained exposure to my mother’s opinions. When I first started private practice, I was highly susceptible to the person who said, "Well that seems like an awful lot — can’t you lower it?" I constantly felt a need to explain, "Look, just because I charge you $XXX doesn’t mean that I put $XXX in my pocket at the end of the day. I have to pay for this office, and this paper, and this telephone, and this computer, too." Tearful parents or spouses could reduce me to apologizing for charging them at all. And all the while, there was my mother’s voice in the back of my head: "We don’t talk about money."

Of course, this difficulty isn’t unique to those raised by Mississippi mothers. I’ve spent enough time talking to my fellow solo and small-firm practitioners — as well as some from big firms — to know that many of us experience squeamishness on this issue. It appears to get less intense with time, but I’m not sure it ever goes away. It hasn’t for me. I still dread that part of the potential client interview. I tend to wait until the end of the conversation to raise the issue of fees — exactly what many ethics folks advise one not to do, to avoid obtaining conflict — raising information before ascertaining whether the person even will be your client. I tend to take a slightly apologetic, slightly defensive tone of voice when telling a client about my fees. If they wince — and some do, as many of you will have experienced — I have to fight the urge to say, "I’m sorry — that is a lot of money, isn’t it? Hmmm — how about whatever you pay your babysitter per hour?" I’m working on all this, but it takes a long time to fight past a life-time of thinking a certain way about money.

In the end, I suppose, this is part of the conflict many solo and small-firm practitioners have with the difference between being a lawyer and being a business owner/lawyer. We went to law school to learn how to practice law, not how to run businesses. Some of us are great business people through prior training or instinct; others of us have no clue about how to run a business. But we’re always trying to balance the aspects of our dual careers.

You’ll be heartened to know that I’ve tried, as independent children will, to sift through my mother’s opinions and adopt the ones that have meaning for me. Like her, I’m a big fan of thank-you notes. But she’d probably be shocked to learn that I don’t send a handwritten thank-you note on monogrammed paper to every client who does me the favor of paying his or her bill.

After her clerkship on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Pam Pepper served as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and Milwaukee. Since 1997, she has had a private criminal defense practice, working in federal courts in Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee and in state courts around southeastern Wisconsin.

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