Succeeding By Being Different

When it comes to non-traditional billing practices, it’s okay to start thinking outside the box. I am proof positive that the billable hour does not have to dictate your entire existence. I run Smol Law, a firm that is set up to sell what is usually called “cocktail party law,” which means I offer general legal advice on a broad array of topics. Unfortunately, some attorneys complain about this kind of casual legal advice, and generally consider it an unprofitable line of business. I saw this area not as a hindrance, but as an opportunity in search of a business model, so I made a plan to get paid for offering this kind of ongoing legal service. Some people need to see their primary care physician to ascertain whether that doctor can solve their issue, or if they need to see a specialist. That’s where I, a legal generalist, and my novel billing practice, come in.

Here’s how billing works at Smol Law: Clients pay a monthly, old-fashioned time-and-availability retainer. I use Patreon for this purpose most of the time because it has the easiest sign-up process for clients and supports the idea of the time-and-availability retainer. I charge $25 for an individual, $50 for a family, and $50 for a very small business (no employees) per month.

I then make myself available by email, phone, video chat, or encrypted text.

I help people figure out their needs and refer anything that is beyond the scope of my practice (i.e., it is complex enough to warrant the services of a specialized law firm). I never take money for a referral, but occasionally a client gets a small discount (about the equivalent of a monthly payment) for this work. Meanwhile, I still remain available to them in the future, and their monthly payments do not cease.

On the other hand, if the matter is something I am comfortable doing, I will work the case, and send the client a link where they can pay me an amount they choose based on the value they see in my work. Yes, you read that right. They choose what to pay me, after the fact.

I offer the following guidance for these “tip” type payments: $100-$150 a page for an original document; $50-$75 a page for a form document; and $50 a page to do document review. This works better for clients, because page count is something they can physically see, as opposed to my hours, which are not a thing they can see or want to track. I of course run the risk of under-payment, but I am generally not doing projects that take more than three hours (this restriction is in the engagement letter), so I don’t have a lot of risk.

Letting clients decide what to pay me was a risk, but in general, I have been paid more than I would have billed on an hourly basis, and clients like feeling in control of what they pay. This also means my clients are not reluctant to contact me because they are afraid of what it will cost.

My practice offers several advantages to versus standard hourly rate practice model. Two advantages include:

  • I don’t have to track my time. My clients pay me even when they don’t need me so I can be available, and this covers my fixed costs in a reliable manner. I don’t need an IOLTA account. I don’t have to worry much about unreasonable fees, because the person paying the fee is the one deciding what is reasonable. I also never really have accounts receivable; the availability retainers are paid in advance and the tip income is variable, but not something I have to invoice or keep on my books.
  • I have an ongoing commitment to volunteer at a legal clinic that targets the same community as my clients, so my Smol Law clients help make my services available more widely in the community. The idea of community support is an important part of the overall legal discipline, and I give financial and volunteer updates to my Smol Law clients as a part of my accountability to the community.

About the Author

Melissa HallMelissa Hall is the founder of Smol Law, an intentional general legal practice, a role she sees as an essential link between people and the legal community. Contact her on Twitter @CasualLaw.

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