I’m on a legal listserv and there was recently a thread on what an attorney should do with clients who get drafts of their wills, et al. and then never get back to the lawyer about executing them. The lawyer wondered whether his problem was unique and if there were good ways to move the client along and, not so coincidently, get paid. This lawyer tended to have his secretary make a follow-up call to schedule an appointment, with limited results. There were a number of great suggestions on what to do on a “going-forward” basis, but the thread ran primarily toward the “send them a bill and see if they call” approach.
Now, I’m not necessarily critical of that approach, especially in certain situations, but I also see this as potential opportunity reach a happy result for everyone.
I practiced exclusively estate planning law for over ten years, so even though my focus now is quite different, I had a few thoughts on this topic that I thought might be worth sharing on this blog as well.
And, of course, there’s no good reason not to repurpose listserv responses into blog posts.
The first rule of an estate planning practice: you can lead a client to the will, but you can’t make him/her sign it.
This nearly-universal problem stems from the fact that most people dread stepping up to signing their wills and usually only do so willingly when faced with a “focusing event,” and, in my ten years of estate planning, nothing focused people more than a plane trip. My only a-little-bit-less-than-serious answer might well be that your best approach might well be making reservations for a plane trip for them.
To me, the issue is largely one of communication. Many people simply do not understand that they need to formally execute the documents and how to do so, no matter how well you explained it or set it out in writing. It’s not particularly your fault or theirs – people are just largely unaccustomed to working with lawyers and don’t know the steps we take for granted (in a surprising number of cases, they may even know exactly what “drafts” are).
I say, pick up the phone, call them personally and see if they have any questions and schedule an appointment (transfer them to your secretary, if appropriate, only to schedule). Why wait around? Why let your first contact after they receive the drafts be a bill or a call from your secretary? In most cases, they’re expecting you, the lawyer, to tie up the loose ends and tell them what comes next, or they may simply be puzzled by the quantity of documents (“what’s this trust?” or “why are their documents for each of us?”) or language they can’t understand (slip some of my old technical generation-skipping transfer tax clauses on for size). A shocking number of clients simply do not even read your cover letters. In any of these events, they will welcome the call from you and not from your secretary. Show them that they are first-class clients (our saying at The Stolar Partnership was that we only had first class clients – no second-class clients) and that their matter rates the personal attention of their attorney. We tend to forget that estate planning raises many uncomfortable emotions for many people. It is definitely true that some people believe that signing a will means that you will die soon.
There are dangers of letting drafts hang out there a long time: people can die or become incompetent, family situations can change drastically, people can and do “sign” wills (even ones clearly stamped “DRAFT”) and think that they are covered, and there are other instructive stories that I might share at another time. In addition, collection gets more difficult the longer it gets to be after the work is done.
I do question the approach of just sending the bill – won’t your word-of-mouth be better if you’re known as the lawyer who called to check to see if everything was OK instead of the lawyer who sent me a draft and a bill and never talked to me? I’m not being critical of other lawyers using the “send the bill” approach – I tended to be more of a “send a letter” estate planning lawyer than a “call them up” lawyer and in some cases sending the bill is the only way to get someone’s attention – but it’s worth considering what image you want to create. I also suspect that spending just one morning making phone calls to your clients who have been holding drafts the longest will more than pay for itself in cash flow.
The great thing is that by following-up and scheduling a quick appointment, you can present the invoice in person at the signing and more than likely get a check on the spot, and everyone leaves happy and smiling, with the client telling you that she will be sending her neighbor to you.
Then, you can go back to your new clients with a new engagement letter that takes a “half of the fee upfront” or “half on completion of draft” or other preferred fee arrangement type of approach. Lawyer X’s approach of scheduling the signing appointment at the initial meeting is also a very good approach to consider for future clients, especially in the case of standard estate plans. That should really help with both project flow and cash flow and reduce collection concerns. The ultimate scenario, of course, is to have the initial meeting, generate the documents by document assembly while the clients go to lunch and sign the documents and get your check when they return from lunch. A very nice day’s work, if you can find it.