Providing clients the highest level of customer service is a top priority. Generally, high quality service results from the time we invest in a case and legion are the justifications for managing our caseloads accordingly. More time invested generally means better service. One caseload management approach is expressly rejecting new clients. However, I was never fond of that technique since I feared developing a reputation for saying “no.” I believed the reputation might hinder the flow of potential new clients to my door. For this reason, I settled on charging premium fees to control the size of my caseload.
May I be bold? Defense lawyers should charge premium fees for their legal services. In fact, charging premium fees may be the foundation of any successful criminal law practice. My theory – of course. But experience taught me high fees helped keep a caseload manageable which enabled the lawyer to focus on quality rather than quantity. Premium fees also controlled the volume of low-paying business in the practice, resulting in a robust bottom line. The more satisfying profit, the more freedom we enjoyed to provide quality services at reduced rates or pro bono. In a like manner, the support staff could deliver better service when they managed fewer cases. The heart of the matter was that fewer cases handled at a premium fee resulted in more time the firm had to address specific client needs.
With this said, charging a premium fee was a privilege. It presupposed we had the professional experience to deliver what we promised. Young attorneys may need 10 years to become proficient at lawyering, before they should charge a premium fee. During those years the young lawyer accepts court appointments and handles the very difficult, complicated cases. They’re becoming good cross-examiners, good negotiators, and smart lawyers. In other words, they are establishing the necessary foundation before earning the privilege of setting a premium fee for criminal defense services.
I understand success is in the eye of the beholder. It may be defined in many ways. But I propose a successful criminal law practice is the marriage of professional excellence and business acumen. First, our clients deserve the highest quality legal services we can provide. It is our ethical duty. But second, our practice should create a satisfying business profit. We have bills to pay, families to support, retirement accounts to fund. Not to mention it’s fun to make a good living at what we do. Specifically, the business aspect of our practice is the confluence of professional competence, marketing, selling, and customer service. All aspects take study, work, and practice. Each is a worthy column topic. But setting a premium fee may be at the top of the successful business pyramid and lawyers shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a premium fee. Of course, higher fees may deter the price-shopping prospects. But price shoppers must also know they often get what they pay for. Setting fees will always remain a risk for the committed defense lawyer. But running a successful business always involves risk. Without risk there is no reward.
Lawyers don’t seem to discuss their fees much. As it happens, I don’t remember ever talking with a fellow defense lawyer about the price they charged for legal services. But maybe I should. Maybe we should start sharing ideas about how fee setting can help us control our caseloads and affect the quality of service we can provide clients. The business success of our professional law practice is important. And premium fee setting can be the starting place for better client service and a more satisfying bottom line.
(“Off the Back” featured in the “Voice For The Defense” November 2014)
Stephen Gustitis is a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan-College Station. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a husband, father, and retired amateur bicycle racer.
“Off the Back” is an expression in competitive road cycling describing a rider dropped by the lead group who has lost the energy saving benefit of riding in the group’s slipstream. Once off the back the rider struggles alone in the wind to catch up. The life of a criminal defense lawyer shares many of the characteristics of a bicycle rider struggling alone, in the wind, and “Off the Back.” This column is for them.