7 Reasons You Shouldn't Work for Free

There are strong reasons that you should always make new clients pay for your time and why you should make them pay during their lawsuit too. Here’s just a few that come to mind:

1. All too often, new clients will think that if you charge them nothing then you are worth nothing.

You have to charge something, no matter how little, just to earn their respect and appreciation. Besides, if your non-suit demand letter does work and you didn't charge anything then the client will think they could have gotten it done themselves. But if they had to pay you for your time, then they usually think that it was entirely your "lawyer letter" that got it done (and it probably was). The simple fact is that the only way you will get any credit for your work is if you get paid for it.

2. On top of that, no other industry works for free. It's time we stopped.

Think of it this way. If you go home at the end of the day and report to your spouse, "Honey, I wrote 16 demand letters to fraudulent car dealers who ripped off 16 new clients that came in today." And then the spouse says, "so, how much did they pay you?" and you say "nothing, but I'm pretty sure most of them will become new clients and I'll get at least a dozen new contingent fee cases out of today's work." Which, of course, prompts the spouse to say, "ok, and I'm pretty sure the dry cleaner for your suits doesn't work on contingency fee and the grocery store won't work that way either." Now folks, trust me here, that does not make for a happy evening at home.

3. This is not PI work.

Yes, I know that personal injury attorneys work on contingency. But they are after far larger sums that the normal Consumer Law attorney and the injuries are far beyond merely money so the stakes are much, much larger. They can afford to wait between "paydays" because their average returns are so much bigger when they come in and no one argues about their fee because no one ever has. Consumer Law fee-shifting still is not readily acceptable simply because it is "on top" of the consumer's recovery instead of being, as it is in a PI case, "inside" the recovery. In these economic times, most Consumer Law attorneys can no longer afford to give away their time in the hope of gaining another contingent fee case.

4. You may need new clients, but not that bad.

We all want more cases, but you don't make any money by bleeding your time out for free to get them. And if you don't make any money, you won't have any blood left to bleed out anyway because you'll be broke. Money, like it or not, is the lifeblood of your business (unless you are independently wealthy and do this work just for the fun of it, and I don't know of a single member of NACA who has won the lottery lately).

5. You mean that you actually want clients who won’t listen to you?

Clients who don’t pay you are very often clients who don’t listen to you either. Worse yet, if the client isn't paying anything at all, then they have no incentive to settle for anything less than the full amount they could conceivably get, and they often won't. The result is very likely litigation to the death, either the defendant's or your own economic near-death. Congratulations; that case you thought was so good it would settle in weeks will now drag on for months and months and months of your time, sweat and money (costs advanced). Worse yet, you may end up in a position of having to cajole the client into accepting a settlement they are uncertain of and that's the makings of a grievance which, of course, only eats up more of your valuable time with no money return from it. You want client control? Make them invest in their own case. One of the best reasons to make a client pay fees (any amount at all is better than nothing at all) is simply client control.

6. Clients who don't pay you, don't appreciate you, and are ripe for grievance issues if something doesn't turn out the way they want.

I could be wrong, but I firmly believe that in Consumer Law most client grievances come from two sources: clients who don't get enough hand-holding from their attorneys (call it a lack of communication) and clients who don't have to pay anything for their attorney's time ("they could've gotten me more and made me settle for less"). While I know studies support my first assumption here, I'm not aware of any on the second but I will take any bet on it being true. There's a reason that business lawyers rarely get grievances.

7. So, you actually enjoy groveling for fees to the Judge?

Psychologically, you are in a much stronger position in a fee-shifting case when you can explain to your opposing counsel and/or the judge that your client has been paying fees all along and is entitled to get those back as part of their recovery, than you are if you have to admit that you won’t get paid anything if they don’t give it to you. The first approach shifts the focus to the entitlement aspect. The second makes you a beggar and, worst yet, it tells the merchant’s attorney just how much control they have over you and your self-interest in advising your consumer client. Even worse than that, it tells them precisely how to make sure you don’t sue them again: “just fight the fee issue to the death every time and pretty soon that lawyer will go away” becomes the advice the defense attorney may tell their business client. And you are the unlucky recipient of the results of that “scorched earth” advice. The defense attorney says it for two reasons. First, it might actually work. Second, it justifies the big legal bill they intend to send to the merchant for fighting you personally as much as fighting the case. If it works, they become a hero to their client. If it doesn’t work, they just mumble something like “that mean SOB will never learn until we do it to them again.” They get to portray Consumer Law attorneys as “greedy lawyers” who are picking on their client instead of us being the socially conscious fighters of the little guy’s rights who do what we do for fairness and justice.

You can work for free if you like and never charge a client anything at all for working nights and weekends. Just remember, though, that no other industry works for free. Personally, I think it's about time that we stopped.

Ronald Burdge
Helping Attorneys Do Better Since 1978