Starting-up a Law Firm, Independent Litigation Practice? Protik Da’s 8 Point Strategy on Getting Paid

Protik Da’s first piece on this topic is here. Do read it and the comments on the article before reading further.

By Protik Da

Unlike most lawyers, I rarely take vacations.  I go for unpaid anxiety interludes when the High Court is in recess, punctuated by high points when I am paid obscene amounts of money to draft difficult things.

This year it was different since my lady wife and my daughter and two of my closest juniors prevailed upon me to leave Kolkata for Puri for a week.  That explains the delay in getting back to the most important though often unsung part of a lawyer’s life: money.

Alvina (a commenter on the first article) looked at the practical side of things from the points of view of both the lawyer and the client and came up with a basic general theory that you should charge reasonable fees, inspire the client’s confidence, make a stage-wise expenditure chart and firmly get the money at each stage; she accepted that the client may disappear, but she cut losses.

Karan on the other hand, though agreeing on the basics of charging a reasonable fee, (market rate for such services) would have you start with a safety net: either a law firm where you can train yourself and build your contacts or join a senior’s chamber who will allow you to handle cases by your own, but in either case have a monthly salary or retainer fee, if you do not have a family which can bear your expenses through these teething years.

Both the suggestions make sense.  Yet not every law firm pays you 60K a month throughout the country.  Most law firms pay a lot less to non-CLAT law school graduates and any law-firm jealously guards its clients and contacts.  Not every senior pays a monthly stipend/retainer fee to his juniors.  In fact such seniors are rare in Kolkata.

Here seniors expect that the juniors will work for free because they are getting an opportunity to work and learn; yet many of today’s juniors graduate from law-schools on education loans and they have to start repaying the loan almost from immediately after they graduate.

Even if their families can do without their incomes, the families may not be able to pay the monthly installments.  What of them?

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The following has worked for junior lawyers without a safety net who have nonetheless managed to get a paying brief:

  1. At the time of the first conference itself, have the client execute a vakalatnama and pay a token amount as retainer/fees on account.  A client who has consulted many other lawyers will feel that you are serious and professional if you do this and at the same time, not be able to easily take his custom elsewhere once he has authorized you to represent him and paid you some money.
  2.  Find out what the stage-wise going rate is for the work (As Avina and Karan have both deduced).  You do this by asking other more experienced lawyers as to how much they would take to do that work with a stage-wise break up.  By comparing different rates, you will arrive at the going rate.
  3. Make it very clear to the client that you are fresh from law-school and do not have sufficient funds to work on credit, and would need the expenses up front.
  4. Let him take his time to make the payment of expenses perhaps in two tranches, one immediately the rest on the day that you will file.  Make sure that you take the stamp cost in advance since usually the stamp vendor takes a few days to arrange for the judicial stamp paper.
  5. Once the client has paid the first tranche and the court fees/stamp costs, it is unlikely he will disappear.
  6. Let us say that the client understands your dire straits and to test your resolve, tells you, “If I had to make such payments, I would have gone to an experienced lawyer.  I have come to you to give you a break (or because such and such recommended you or asked me to try you out) and you are asking for so much money now?  I did not know you were so mercenary.”
  7. Just look him in the eye and say politely that any lawyer he would go to would ask for the expenses because no lawyer, however green, would litigate from his own funds.  The others would ask for a lot more and their fees, but in consideration of your relationship you are not asking for your fees in advance.  So if he has to pay any way, it makes sense that he works with a lawyer who will not ask for that much money, will give him time to make payment and will only work for the expenses.
  8. Normally this is sufficient.  You will have your client and his custom too while not being out of pocket.

Till this point, it should be pretty elementary.  Yet even now you have only covered your expenses and not your fees.  Or have you?  Most juniors pad their expenses a bit; a bit on each count.

If you add these bits up, you will find that the total is equal to your fees for the job.  It takes a little calculation to find the bit that you have to add to the actual expense on each account, but you can do it.  Practice makes you perfect here too.

Together, we have found out one strategy which ought to ensure that you retain your client and get paid for your work.  I am rather happy that my independent contribution was really one point (number one) and the last paragraph.

See why I don’t give out the answers up front, Pratap?  It allows you to think for yourselves and find out the solutions yourself.  Just you did, this time.

Protik Prokash Banerjee, fondly called Protik Da is a Kolkata based lawyer.

Comments and questions are welcome.

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