As the new year begins, you may be looking to increase fees for your legal services. All too often, lawyers who charge by the hour include the higher rates in an invoice at the beginning of February with no prior warning. Whether this strictly complies with the requirement to notify clients of material changes could be debated, but using this practice across the board is bad client relations regardless.
Your approach to raising rates for your existing clients should be individualized. If you have long-standing clients for whom you’ve raised rates in this way year after year with no complaints, you are probably on safe ground to continue doing so. But this should not be your default or automatic procedure. As consultants and business development coaches, we have seen the aftermath of this mistake too many times to count.
The following are a few recurring patterns to avoid. Most commonly, raising rates on already dissatisfied clients is risky at best and foolhardy at worst. If, for instance, you recently got a poor outcome in some aspect of a case or you haven’t adequately delivered on certain parts of a project, this is probably not a great time to charge more, especially without separate, explicit notice and consent from the client.
Second, if the work you do for an existing client is essentially unchanged from December to January, you are in danger of losing that client and future referrals by heightening fees without explanation. A classic example is the increasing of hourly rates for depositions, an especially unwelcome way to wish clients a happy New Year. The harder it is to differentiate the value of the work done before and after the new year, the more hesitant a firm should be to automatically raise rates effective January 1st.
In another familiar misstep, firms at times raise rates before having demonstrated any significant accomplishments for the client. When clients can’t point to tangible and positive differences made by the law firm, a fee increase is likely to engender some resentment.
Please don’t assume your client will immediately voice their displeasure at ill-timed and unexplained fee increases. This type of move can cause a fray in the relationship that becomes apparent down the line through passive aggressive behaviors and reluctance to pay future bills.