Year End Collections: Tips for Getting Paid Before Year-end

Collection Box Fund Raising Drive Donation Support Money HelpOctober 2016 (revised from original post) Peggy Gruenke | Originally published in Attorney at Work.

The year end is right around the corner, along with the holiday season. So, what do you really want for a holiday gift? How about getting paid for the work you did during the year and focus on year-end collections.

The holidays can be extra hectic for lawyers with the scramble to get money from clients before year-end and tax planning with your accoutant. Most law firms operate on a calendar year and are run on a cash basis, meaning work isn’t counted as revenue until clients pay. If you are a partner or even an associate, your compensation may be tied to the amount of money your firm collects on the work you billed. If you are a solo, you know all too well your compensation is directly tied to how much you collect on invoices.

Also during these last few months of the year, there’s typically a slowdown in the number of new cases for many practice areas — divorce, bankruptcy, estate planning, real estate — as people begin to prepare for the holidays and put certain personal and business matters on hold.

The result? A collections sprint as the year closes. Law firms deal with it every year — a large percent of revenue is collected in the last three months of the year. Could better collection procedures be put in place to avoid this year-end ritual? Of course! But let’s focus on tips to help you get more money in now.

The Collections Plan: Start With Over-Ripe Accounts

Now is the time to look at past-due accounts and figure out where you are leaving money on the table. The tool you will need to assist you is your “aged accounts receivable” report. I suspect this might generate one of the following reactions from you:

  • Confusion, as in “Crap, do I even have this kind of report?” (Add “buy accounting and practice management software” to your holiday shopping list!)
  • Panic when you see how very few past-due amounts await collection, and how little cash you have on hand. (Be happy the clients you have actually paid you. Next year, get more clients.)
  • Frustration when you realize how much time collecting past-due money is going to take.
  • More frustration because you haven’t set up the ability to accept credit cards for client payments. (Eliminate this frustration now and setup credit cards: Here is the link to LawPay.)
  • Disappointment that you let past-due accounts get to this point.
  • Relief that you have money to collect!

Putting emotion aside, here are a few things you can start on — this week — to boost your year-end revenue number. Continue reading

The 6 Month Financial Checkup: Are you making money yet?

Law firm ProfitabilityThis article was originally written for Attorney at Work in 2014. It has been re-written and updated for this blog post.

So it’s July and you will be sitting down to reconcile your bank accounts for June’s activity. This is an exercise you do (should be doing) every month. As long as there’s money in the checking account, life must be good – right? Maybe, but it begs the question – How profitable is your law firm and can it be doing better?

Six months are in the books and now is a good time to evaluate a few of your firm’s financial metrics and law firm profitability before you plow through the next 6 months of the year. Step back and review where you are in relation to your 2016 budget you created in January. Are you profitable and making money yet? If you never created that budget, no worries, this article will help you plan for the next six months with a budget and a system in place. I have included a sample budget tracker spreadsheet for you to start with now.

While looking at the financial data and key metrics you should be tracking and measuring, let’s ask a few questions to get you in the mindset of looking at your firm as a business and preparing for a more successful next six months.

  1. Are you paying yourself a monthly salary and is it enough to cover your personal expenses? Or are you randomly taking money out of the business when the bank account looks healthy enough to do so?Payroll

Goal: Build you salary into your budget along with payroll taxes. It is tempting to just randomly take out money but the tax implications for this habit will catch up with you the next year. This task also requires you to create a personal budget so you know how much salary you and your family need in order to pay the monthly bills and save for your kids college!

  1. Do you know what you have to bill and collect every month to cover your firm’s monthly expenses, which includes your salary? This is your monthly “nut” – the money you will need very month to pay fixed expenses. Know your “nut” assumes you know your monthly fixed expense.

Goal: Calculate your “monthly nut.” Put this number in a very visible place so you look at it every month as a reminder that once you hit this number, you are making profit for your family and your future retirement.

  1. Does your budgeted income number reflect your collection realization rate?

If you budget to bill 1500 hours/year at $200/hour, your budgeted revenue is $300,000. But it’s not a perfect world and this is not what will be collected. Knowing your collection realization rates will help you set a realistic revenue number to drive your budget.

Collection Rate

Goal: Calculate your YTD 2016 collection realization rate. Shocked at how low it might be? A collection realization rate of 90% should be an attainable goal for you. If it seems daunting based on how low your current collection rate is, don’t worry. This is one area of your financial dashboard that you can improve upon by changing billing habits and tracking accounts receivable.

  1. Do you know your year-to-date profit or lose? How are your actual numbers compared to what you budgeted for? A profit and lose statement is sometimes referred to as an income statement. It is simply an accounting report comparing revenue/income to expenses, usually shown monthly compared to last month for the same time period.

Income is based on a few things discussed above: billing and collections. Expenses are something that can surprise you if you are not tracking them monthly. Having the prepared budget you review each month is invaluable for tracking expenses. You may not think you are spending a lot of money until you see it in writing.

Profit lose

Goal: Make sure your accounting system is setup with a chart of accounts that segregates expenses by categories that you wish to track. Then every month enter the actual amounts spent and watch for any unusual trends. If one month was higher than usual, adjust for the remaining months so you don’t overspend.

  1. Do you have a cash flow report that you can look at every month?

A cash flow report is simply a way for you to keep an eye on your actual checking account balance. If you are reconciling every month and updating your budget/financial tracker spreadsheet, then you will know how much you are starting with every month – with enough money in the checking account or not enough. Once again, it gives you data to make decisions about your business so you can be proactive and not reactive.

In the sample budget tracker/financial spreadsheet, the beginning cash balance for the next month is calculated this way:

2016-07-13_21-21-03

 

 

 

 

Goal: Commit to reconciling your bank accounts within the first few days of each month and updating your budget/financial tracker spreadsheet with the reconciled amount. Having correct and current data is essential for making good business decisions.

Cash Flow

  1. How many hours and dollars are you billing each month and what is your average hourly rate?

You can’t get paid unless you are billing every month. Knowing how much you are billing every month and what the trends are will help you see your financial future, not through rosy glasses but actual numbers.

Goal: Track your billable hours and bill promptly and regularly. Train your clients to expect to pay monthly for their legal services.

Hours billed

  1. How many new matters are you setting up each month and what has been the trend? Is the pipeline full for continued cash flow? Do you have an even balance of hourly vs. flat fee vs. contingent?

Goal: Track the number of new matters per month and visualize the growth. A month with a low number of new matters can signal less income in the coming months. Especially combined with a low beginning check register balance. Knowing this ahead of time can help you prepare. Maybe look at expenses closely over these upcoming months and defer expenses if possible.

Matters

  1. What is your six-month collection realization rate? Is this a weak spot and a reason for low revenue numbers? Your collection realization rate is the percentage of your billed fees that is actually collected. Pretty simple stuff. Collection realization rates are often overstated because lawyers tend to leave uncollectible receivables in the system for an unrealistic time period, rather than admit the money will never be collected.

Goal: Commit to calculating your six-month collection realization rate and for the remainder of the year, set a goal to increase this by 2%. An increase of 2% can yield additional money without doing more work.

Collection reallization

  1. What are your outstanding accounts receivable 30, 60, 90 and over 90 days? This is an area that can yield additional profit for your firm, without putting in longer hours, by simply tighten up or putting in place good receivable management practices. You are not in the business to extend credit and make loans. Set expectations with your clients’ early on regarding payment of invoices. You are a small business owner and cash flow is important. They should understand and respect your business needs. If they don’t, fire them.

Goal: Implement monthly billing procedures and collect all payments before they hit 90 days past due. Create a procedure to send letters requesting payments once account hits 60 days past due and then follow-up regularly. Analysis past due accounts in excess of 1 year. They have little chance of being collected. So don’t count on this money coming in. Write if off and move on.

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  1. Don’t have a budget or method to track your firm’s financial data? Use the summer month of July to build yourself a nice spreadsheet so you are ready for the next six months in 2016. This is an invaluable exercise and once done, it easily converts to an annual worksheet.

Improved understanding of these financial metrics will assist you greatly with strategic business development initiatives–all of which are critical to remaining competitive and profitable as a solo and small firm attorney.

Written by Peggy Gruenke with CPN-Legal, a company whose mission is to help solo and small-firm lawyers build better businesses. She is active in the ABA GPSolo Division and a frequent speaker at bar associations and ABA TechShow.

Is 2015 going to be a profitable year? Key Metrics to Track

January 2015 | Peggy Gruenke | Clio and Law Practice Management Consultant

Business Plans for Solos

Key Metrics to Review for Profitability

Now let’s look at different key metrics you may want to review and have in place for 2015. Understanding which key metrics you should be tracking and measuring is critical to remaining profitable as a solo and small firm attorney.

Using the below chart as a reference, here are six key metrics you should track for 2015. If you think six is too many to identify and track, then pick three. If you have never setup a way to track and review these key metrics, this spreadsheet will help you get started.

  1. Track the number of new matters you are getting by type: flat fee, hourly, contingent and pro bono
  2. Track number of hours you are billing on hourly cases and flat fee cases
  3. Your average hourly rate on billed matters
  4. How much you collected each month (revenue from cash flow worksheet)
  5. Your collection realization rate: what % of billed revenue did you collect
  6. Money not coming in: How much money are you leaving on the table every month

Money In Money Out - Preparing for 2015 Image Key Metrics

  1. New matter tracking. How many new matters did you set up each month and what has been the trend? Did the pipeline stay full for continued cash flow? If you have good law practice management software, this information will be right at your fingertips by running reports.

One thing you want to look at is the balance between your types of cases. Too many contingent cases will create very uneven collections since these cases have a long life. They also have expenses related to them. Hourly cases should be generating a nice flow of income as long as you are billing regularly. If you do a number of flat fee cases, it’s important to make sure you are not only profitable but you are profitable at a decent hourly billing rate. Flat fees also mean you may have to manage the flow of this money between your trust account and your operating account, creating invoices and paying yourself at certain milestones. Pro bono cases should be one of you yearly goals as part of your business development plan.

Tip: If you do a lot of contingent cases and find your monthly cash flow having too many valleys, open up a firm savings account and deposit a portion of your next contingent fee in this account. Move it over to your checking account as needed to cover your monthly “nut.” Continue reading

Is 2015 going to be a profitable year? Part One

January 2015 | Peggy Gruenke | Clio and Law Practice Management Consultant

Business Plans for Solos

Law firms are profitable businesses

Let’s set the stage with a very positive image: Law firm business models are very profitable models. According to a Fortune magazine article, in 2014law firms ranked second as a profitable business model with an average profit margin on 17.8%. So, yes, you can make money running a solo law firm! That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do but with the right tools in place at least you will now if you are being profitable.

So it’s January and you will be sitting down to reconcile your bank accounts for December’s activity and looking at your year revenue and expenses. This is an exercise you do (should be doing) every month. As long as there’s money in the checking account, life must be good – right? Maybe, but it begs the question, “Was your business profitable in 2014 and can it be doing better?”

January is a good time to step back and review the financial health of your solo or small firm business. While there are many areas to look at as you prepare for 2015, this article will discuss two areas:

  1. Reports you should have in place and reviewing at the end of the year and monthly to help you better understand the financials of your firm.
  2. Key metrics should you be reviewing to reveal weaknesses in your business. Or identify strengths and give yourself a pat on the back.

Preparing for 2015: Reports for reviewing Money In, Money Out

Money Out: Review your budget tracking worksheet which has been tracking expenses by month: actual vs. budget. This report provides a birds’ eye view of how you spent money in 2014 and compares it to your budget. For 2015, it will be your data for creating your 2015 budget.

The key thing to look at on this report:

  • Where did you overspend? Maybe the extra expenditures are justified.
  • What accounts never had expenses applied to them? This would be for 2 reasons:
    • Maybe you created expense categories but never used them. If so, remove these accounts so the report is less cluttered and easier to read
    • Maybe you have expenses allocated to the wrong accounts. You will want to fix this so you have a true picture of actual expenses.

Added bonus: If you are not currently using accounting software, this worksheet can be setup to reflect the proper way to organize your chart of accounts for that accounting system. The chart of accounts is simply a way to categorize firm expenses and income.

Money In Money Out - Preparing for 2015 Image #1 Continue reading

Year-end planning for lawyers: Focus on your financial data

December 22, 2014 | Peggy Gruenke | Law Practice Management Consultant

Year-end planning: Focus on current clients

So what can you focus on in December to help evaluate your 2014 numbers and plan for a stronger 2015?

  1. Run the accounts receivable report and spend time on collections.

Looking at this past due invoice report, there may be another “oh crap” moment but also a sense of hope. This money, if collected, could be in your next paycheck before year-end and the holiday spending season.

December can be a tough month to do collections and you may be kicking yourself for not having been doing this all year or at least starting earlier. In December, clients are focused on the holidays and upcoming expenses related to gifts and parties. But it is also the time of year when companies give out bonuses. So your client may have an additional source of revenue in December to pay your invoice. Provide a small incentive and consider offering a discount if paid before year-end. If you represent businesses, they are usually looking to pay all their expenses before year-end, so do them a favor and send their bills frequently during December.

Tip: On active cases, bill every two weeks in December but include a letter explaining why the change in your billing process. You are a small business owner. They should understand and respect the fact that you are being proactive and working on your business’ year-end.

Here is an article that contains many more tips about year-end collections. (I can give you a link to an article I wrote about year end collections)

  1. Review what is in your Trust account.

This is a great time of year to make sure you have been diligent about moving money from your trust account to operating account as fees were earned. It also great time to make sure all of your client ledgers are in balance.

Run your Work in Progress (WIP) report and see if there is any time or expenses sitting out there that you can invoice and pay yourself, transferring Trust funds to operating before year-end.

If you have money in client ledgers, run their individual client ledger report and send them a copy so they have a current record of all the transactions during 2014. This is also a great opportunity to stay in touch with your current clients and show them you are on top of things. Continue reading

Lawyers, do you have a game plan for your business?

Nicole at NAL

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have a daughter that for the last 16 years has been in the equestrian world of show jumping. My husband and I have great respect for her ability to enter the show ring always having a plan for how she will ride the course. In show jumping, your goal is to complete the designed course, which consists of a number of jumps or obstacles, in the fastest time, staying on course and without knocking down any rails. It requires a clear vision, a plan, and a strategy with the ability to execute and adjust when things go awry and still complete the course. Before she goes into the ring to compete, she has evaluated the competition, the course and the best path to ride. Simply put: she and her horse have a game plan.

So how well are you doing with your plan to grow and manage your law practice?

Whether a solo, an associate or a partner within a firm, you have to always have that mindset of being a business owner. A partner today may be a solo tomorrow. To grow your business, you have to focus on how to get business, deliver services, get paid and make money. This focus leads to developing clarity around what you do and how you ride the course.

While most lawyers want to have more business and grow, it is amazing how many I talk to that have not taken the time to develop even a simple business plan. As a result, the business is without a focused direction or clear strategy. And businesses without clarity about what they do, will not be as successful as a business with a game plan. Just like a rider going into the show ring without a vision and strategy will most likely fail at completing the course.

So, much like our daughter preparing for the show ring, the answer to questions like “How can I get more clients?” or “How can I find better clients?” or “Am I profitable?” begin with having a game plan. In the business world, these components are cleverly disguised as a business plan. Do you have one? A great business plan is not some pie-in-the-sky document full of impressive prose. A business plan can be as simple as a one-page document outlining the actions you will take to be successful. The key is does it provide clarity and serve as a guide for future actions and decisions.

You see, the trouble with most business plans and the reason people don’t want to create one is they are often written for someone else – a banker, an investor, or a potential partner. Instead, I say write it for yourself. It’s your chance to think through the challenges you are facing and commit to a plan of action. Form doesn’t matter.

This short article is not here to tell you how to write a business plan, but instead, to get you thinking about how clear or unclear your own business strategy may be. Maybe the end result will be that you decide to develop a game plan to help guide your business on a course for growth.

Whether just starting out or if you have been practicing for a few years, why write down your game plan? Continue reading

A Clio Workflow for Collecting on Past Due Accounts

Past Due and ClioWant to make sure the collections work on past due accounts gets delegated and completed?

Well, here is a way to do it – the Clio Way.

At a client meeting the other day, the discussion of past due accounts came up. How can we get paid faster on past due accounts and keep our collection realization rate higher? Two great questions for law firm owners to be thinking about and then find a way to automate and delegate.

Sending out collection letters and tracking this activity is a task that probably makes it to the monthly to-do-list but often times slips to the end of the list. Before you know it, it’s 30 days later and those past due accounts are now 60 days past due affecting your collection realization rates even more.

Let’s face it, it is a dreadful task. First, the effort of identifying the past due accounts and then writing the letters, mailing them, and creating a process to make sure the follow-up steps are completed. It you are lucky, maybe one letter is all they needed to remind them to pay. Most likely, the letter alone is not going to motivate a dead-beat client to pay the past due invoice. It will be the follow-up phone calls and subsequent letters that are sent that may get them to pay. That’s why you need a workflow in place.

Another reason this collection process is painful is because it forces you to face the fact that maybe your client selection process wasn’t so great, that you should have asked for and received a larger retainer, or that you should have stopped working before getting in so deep. Either way, what’s done is done and lessons learned can be applied moving forward.

Let’s get started: Setting up the process in Clio

  1. Using the Clio document template feature, convert your collection letters into Clio templates. Design 3 letters named:
    • Phase 1 Collections (gentle reminder),
    • Phase 2 Collections (a little harder nudge)
    • Phase 3 Collections (pay now or off to the collections agency you go)

  1. 2. Define your Task List using the new Task List feature in Clio.
    • Task 1 – Send Phase 1 letter
    • Task 2 – Call if no payment from letter 1
    • Task 3 – Send Phase 2 letter
    • Task 4 – Call if no payment from 2nd letter
    • Etc..


Now, using your new process

First, your firm should have a written collection policy in place that takes into account two functions: how to keep track of clients who are behind on their payments and how to contact clients when they are late paying their bills. The policy will include this workflow and designate who within the firm is responsible for each step.

Here is a sample workflow.

  1. Create a task for yourself to run the Clio Accounts Receivable report every Friday afternoon. Per you firm collection policy, you will have decided when a Phase 1 Collection Letter gets sent and if a certain amount past due triggers the collection letter process. I suggest sending one as soon as the account is ver 30 days. Export the report to Excel so you can easily sort it by due date and see amount due.
  2. Once the new past due accounts are identified, go to the Matter and assign the Collections Task List to the matter. This will automatically create a series of tasks for the matter, assigned to the person you designated when you built the task list.
  3. Now that the tasks are created, you will have to go to each task and assign the due date. (I suspect the ClioLab team is busy designing improvements to the task list feature to improve this step). When you created the task list, you set certain defaults, like who the task is assigned to and how reminders should be sent, which can be overridden.
  4. Below is a screen shot of the new collection workflow, the tasks set with the correct due dates scheduled for the periodic follow-up (which are defined in your collection policy).

Putting the process in action

The firm member who you assigned the tasks to will see these tasks on their task list. BTW, did you know you could set your Clio tasks to sync with Gmail Tasks?

Per your collection manual instructions, the person assigned to complete the collection tasks will upload the document templates, send off the letters, mark the task as complete and then monitor for payments. (This person will need to be set up in Clio to have access to the reports). If payments are made, subsequent tasks can be deleted since they will not be needed.

Suggestion: When marking tasks as complete, add a note about the payment made or conversation with client.

Additional features you can add to the workflow

If in your collection letter, you allow the client the opportunity to go on a payment plan, then add these as tasks to Clio to remind you to track the payments.

If you have any questions about how to create this workflow, please feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to help you out.

Peggy Gruenke | @PeggyGruenke | On LinkedIn

A Cyclist’s Perspective on Fee Agreements

As a cyclist, I truly understand the importance of a well-balanced wheel for ensuring a successful ride.  After completing my recent ride, I thought about the analogy between the smooth bike ride and a successful client engagement. The difference between my smooth rides and not-so-smooth rides can be the condition of the wheels – one loose or out of balance spoke can lead to a bumpy ride or even a ride ending crash. In comparison, the difference between a successful, profitable client engagement and one that is bumpy or ends in a crash can come down to having a well written and executed fee agreement. A fee agreement is a contract which outlines the terms of your business relationship.

There are many resources out there to help you design a fee agreement contract. Having reviewed and helped design a few, I believe incorporating these 8 key elements or spokes into your fee agreement will help you on your way to having a successful and profitable client engagement. As illustrated below, each spoke contributes to the success of the client/attorney engagement.

8 Key Spokes = Fee Agreement Elements:

 fee agreements

1.  Who is the client and what legal services are you providing. Are you representing the company or the individuals in the company? For a probate matter, there can be multiple parties. In this first section, be clear about who you are representing and for what.

2.  You’ve conducted a conflict check and documented the results based on your own internal procedures.  But how will you handle the situation of a conflict arising during representation? You have a duty to notify existing clients of a potential conflict. Spell it out here so the client understands. Great article: Conflict Checking Systems from A to Z by my friend Jim Calloway. Continue reading

Where’s the Money – Managing the Expectation to Get Paid

By Peggy Gruenke, Owner – LawBizCOO

A lawyer’s job is more than offering sound advice or making a persuasive argument. An important role for every lawyer seeking to improve their level of profitability is to manage expectations from intake through getting paid at the conclusion:

        1. Expectations about service;
        2. Expectations about how long it will take;
        3. Expectations about results;
        4. Expectations about cost and getting paid.

#4 is an active process that really is going on behind the scenes during the entire engagement. In my previous blogs, I talked about getting paid on cases using retainers and hourly billing and the importance of communication in these processes.  LawBizCOO 

Today, let’s talk about the clients who are habitual late payers and ask for discounted bills once the bill is beyond 90+ days. One reason you may be in this position is due to the flow of communication being driven by the client rather than you, the lawyer. By not firmly implementing your collection policy throughout the engagement, you have caused your own collection problems. A firm-wide written collection policy will set the stage for getting paid. Including this information in your fee agreement is the way to address the getting paid for your work part of the engagement. (Include link here)

So many times I see a client’s account creeping up to 60 days past due and the attorney assures me they are “good for it”, they will pay. Or “they are a good friend or a friend of a friend who will refer me more business”. The attorney continues to work on the case. Then the next month it’s 90 past due and same responses from the attorney. Now we’re six months into the engagement with no payment. You have clearly sent the message to the client that it’s OK not to pay you for the legal work you are doing on their behalf. Keep in mind, clients respect working with lawyers who have a good business sense and firmly adhere to the guidelines set in the initial client meeting. And as a small business owner, getting paid is an integral part of your business.

Clients who get no pressure to pay their late bills, generally will not pay them. Then when the attorney finally does decide he wants to get paid for the services he provided, the getting paid process becomes a time consuming effort that:

  • Leads to confrontation with the client;
  • Opens  the door for the client to question this work;
  • Is ultimately less profitable because in order to keep the client happy, you discount the bills.

Not setting and managing expectations has created an environment where the client has effectively put themselves in control of your collection policy. Take the time early in the engagement to set the stage to make this matter a profitable one.

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