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LEGAL CENTS: Posting fees online pulls in clients, but can be controversial

Jane Pribek

Clients of LLC in La Crosse don’t have to wonder what solo practitioner Chris Doerfler charges; he puts that information right on his website.

His “Total Warfare” package, for example, to fight OWIs “tooth and nail, every step of the way, to the bitter end” costs $2,550 for first-timers, $3,250-$4,250 for misdemeanor OWIs and $5,000-plus for felony OWIs, depending on the case.

I know these prices because Doerfler posts them on his website, along with many other price packages, for complete representation in family law, estate planning, personal injury and other areas, as well as unbundled advice.

He additionally posts his policies regarding costs, in a chart comparing them to what larger firms often charge.

Milwaukee lawyer Patrick Roney posts his rates online, as well, and emphasizes the availability of fixed fees. Need a simple will? It’s $150.

Both say they’re willing to post price information on their site because it works for them.

Roney, who opened Roney Law Office LLC in January 2009, attributes his high file volume — close to 500, a sizeable number of which is repeat business or client referrals – in large part to upfront pricing.

Doerfler, who opened his firm in 2007, said he typically puts in 14-hour days now, while employing five full-time staffers, to help meet his client demand.

Upfront pricing works, Doerfler said, because real people like to know up front what their legal matter is going to cost, just like they put cereal in their carts at Wal-Mart because they’ve seen a price on the shelf and decided they can afford it.

“I appeal to real people, with real budgets,” he said. “I’m not the lowest-cost firm, and I don’t do pro bono for my clients, either — I need to make a living. But I like to be honest and let them know what the costs are, and I’ll work with them, if need be.”

Roney said the approach suits his business model, because he tends to focus on “high-volume, simple matters,” and about 90 percent of his cases involve flat fees.

Clients like knowing instantly what their legal matter will cost them before calling him, he said, as opposed to having to call and very likely visit multiple firms, interview multiple attorneys and seek multiple quotes. It’s a time saver.

Plus, like Doerfler said, clients appreciate his candor.

If you’re thinking of including pricing on your website, keep the following in mind:

— Clients will hold you to it. Roney accidentally quoted a fee in person that was slightly higher than on the website — he’d made the decision to raise a category of fees, but simply hadn’t gotten around to updating the website. When the client brought that to his attention, of course he honored the website fee. But, along these lines, Roney reserves his right to deviate from the posted price before accepting a representation at the price quoted on the site, if it’s clear to him that the case is more complex than a typical case within that category. That’s something he can usually ascertain when he first fields a prospect’s call or during the free initial consult, and it’s been a rarity.

In addition, he’s carefully structured his retainer, so that if a case “blows up,” the flat fee will change to an hourly arrangement, or some other similar re-negotiation will take place.

— It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Roney doesn’t post his complete fee schedule and costs policy. Instead, he cherry-picked what he thought would be the “best sellers” based on what he believes his competitors are charging.

— It takes time. “You have to stay on top of it. You have to adjust your fees to lure clients,” Roney said. As previously noted, it means keeping up with what others in the area typically charge, and pricing your fees accordingly. “And sometimes, you’re going to end up doing a lot of work, for not a lot of money,” he cautioned. “You have to be prepared to handle those cases with the same level of professionalism where you’re getting $500 for two hours of work. I have the mindset to do that – but I suspect it’s a rare breed of attorney who’s willing to do it.”

— You might not be popular at the local bar holiday party. “I don’t get invited to a lot of golf outings with other lawyers. That’s OK,” Doerfler said. “I refer some of my bankruptcy and employment cases to other lawyers, and they like me a lot. But I’ve rocked the boat in a lot of ways, and it’s created some antagonism.”

But … law is a profession, and doesn’t this commoditize legal services? How long will it take before the legal clinic opens up at Wal-Mart?

Well, let me remind that it’s not just “real people” who like predictability and value in legal fees, but also businesses, as evidenced by an enormously popular initiative among in-house counsel, the “Value Challenge.”

Doerfler said he’d welcome the opportunity to have a Badger Lawyer office next to the optometry clinic at Wal-Mart.

For his part, Roney said some legal services can and should be commoditized: small claims, landlord/tenant, collections, traffic and simple estate plans.

“A lot of times, the fact patterns are similar – someone didn’t pay a bill because they didn’t think they owed that much; someone didn’t pay all the rent because something didn’t work,” he said.

Being upfront about pricing shouldn’t factor in to how others view him, Roney said.

“I don’t think you need to adhere to a strict hourly scheme to be considered ‘professional,’” he said. “Being a professional comes from how you handle cases.”

Jane Pribek can be reached at [email protected].

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