Exploring the Practical Benefits of Flat Rate Billing
Today’s episode is going to be with our provider attorney Debbie Roffman, from Pennsylvania. This is a wide-ranging conversation, but focused on one major theme which Pay-as-you-go and flat rates for specific tasks, which are a lot more affordable for the average human being, people that are filing in family court or estate planning to be able to afford her, because she doesn’t have to ask for three, four, or five thousand dollars upfront, she kind of breaks things up.
We really do dive deep into all the mechanics of how to offer flat rates and the way she thinks about it. How it works for her, how it allows her just to focus on serving her clients and not worry about the clock, not have to bill for every hour and these types of things. There’s certainly a lot of benefits to it, there are certain things you have to do to certainly make sure you’re not overdoing it or going broke and quoting the right flat fees and so forth.
We talk about all those different considerations. So, it’s an excellent interview and she’s been doing extremely well for at least, for quite some time, so we hope you enjoy it. With that, let’s get right into it. This interview is with Debbie Roffman, one of our provider attorneys out of Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Dave Aarons: Hey, Debbie. Welcome to the show.
Deborah Roffman: Hi, nice to be here.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, no doubt. I’m really glad we’re getting a chance to chat today, and just before we started in here, we were having a lively discussion about technology and how it’s impacting the legal profession and allowing you to make it easier for clients to work with you and interface and get you the documents you need faster and the communication channels faster, so it’s going to be really interesting to dive into some of the things that you’ve seen unfolding in your area and how it’s been impacting the way you’re working with your clients.
Maybe, before we jump into that, maybe you could give just a little background on how you got started in the practice of law, the region you serve, and what you focus on in your practice.
Deborah Roffman: Alright. I’d be happy to. I’ve been practicing law primarily in the Delaware County, Pennsylvania area, which is a suburb out of Philadelphia, and it’s called the five-county area around Philadelphia. In that area for about 21 years as a sole practitioner. I had a brief period with a law firm as well. My background, I’m from Omaha, Nebraska originally and wended my way out to Syracuse University to go to law school and get my MBA, because with Omaha geography I thought I’d be able to get into seeing Broadway shows.
It didn’t work out that way because Syracuse is about five hours away from Broadway, but I did enjoy my time there. Then I began, my first job out of law school was as a vice-president of an insurance company in upstate New York. I did a lot of work in the corporate end of things, a lot of lobbying and a lot of issues research, and some internal company department management as well. I was there for several years and then I went on to KPMG [inaudible 00:03:38] and the consulting industry.
I was there for a few years and then my partners at the time, they disbanded this division, so I was let go in the mid-management layoffs at that time. At that point I was the mother of my one and a half-year-old, I had a license in New York State and a license in Connecticut, where I had sat for those bars, but I found myself in Pennsylvania, having worked down there for Pete Marlis, and I didn’t have a job. Also, my domestic situation disappeared somewhat as my money disappeared, and I had to figure out a way to solve my dilemma.
My parents, God bless them, had always said, way from the back, “Go be a lawyer, you can always work for yourself, nobody’s going to let you go from a job.” I said, “Do you know what? I’m going to start, I guess I’m going to start.” Because it was a white-collar recession at the time, it was probably the mid-90’s, and I had a lot of interviews with people who said, “You’re lovely, you’re qualified for a very rarefied status, and you make too much money, we can’t accommodate you.
Well, I did make too much money in the past, but at that time I was making no money, so that became a difficult obstacle. I found out about a little room that was for rent, for $90 a month. Somebody said, “Well you can go be a lawyer in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.” I was like, “I have flown around on jets and been a corporate, I could do that, so I thought.” I had never walked into a courtroom and entered my appearance or filed something in a clerks office.
I had not a clue how to do this. I just had to roll up my sleeves and ask a lot of questions, be very humble and let myself get taught by a community of lawyers, how to begin to be a lawyer. That was about 21 years ago, and now, in those 21 years I’ve practiced a lot of family law and a lot of criminal law, and I got into criminal law because my county had court-appointed positions available, widely through the community, just you didn’t need all that much experience, and I learned a lot from doing that.
Family law, I’ve also done since the beginning, and now I’ve added in estate works through Unbundled, which I really am finding to be very, very interesting. In fact, I had my first litigation today in estate law from an Unbundled case, and I won against Dilworth Paxson, which is not an insignificant law firm on this, so I had fun, and this was an interesting day. That’s where I am, that’s who I am, and I’m practicing with Unbundled through several counties in Pennsylvania.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and what is it that you’ve liked … And there’s a couple of things you’ve shared there I’d love to dive into, but what is it you’ve liked so much about the estate law and as you’ve started taking those clients through Unbundled Attorney?
Deborah Roffman: It’s new to me, it’s like … I’m one of these people that constantly as to have something new to encounter and overcome and get competent at. It always scares me to death, and I ask 100 questions of 100 people, “Am I doing it right? Is my instinct right? Is this the correct way?” Usually, it almost gets reinforced that I did it fine, but I still always check. It’s a new thing, it’s nice to have, it’s good to keep yourself challenged and … Otherwise, I tend to get bored, and when you get bored you don’t want to, you don’t get enjoyment out of what you’re doing.
Dave Aarons: Right. Yeah, that sounds like throughout your career you’ve started from the ground, from a standpoint of not very much experience, but a tone of confidence. I had to self-teach or learn from experience and from others to work your way up to a point of competence. Looking back on it, maybe for example for attorneys that are new to a practice area, or new to a specific region or something like that. If you look back on it, what was it for you that helped you get through those times and really overcome areas where maybe you had a little bit of insecurity or uncertainty about what you were doing and so forth, but allowed you to bridge that gap and get to the next step?
Deborah Roffman: Well I didn’t really work for anyone, as I said I was always pretty much on my own, but I found, whether by luck or by … I’m not really sure how this happened, but I found a community, I would urge any attorney who’s stepping out from their comfort zone, whether they were in a career where the didn’t practice, use their license to practice law, to step out and to find a community. Go to the Bar Association functions, or … I was rather lucky, my situation may not be so easily replicated.
My first preliminary hearing in one of the local district courts, on a criminal case one day, these two middle-aged gentlemen, I would guess I was a new face in town, and they came up and they said hi. They introduced themselves and they both invited me to join the table they had lunch, had had lunch at the same table in the same restaurant for decades really. I was the first female who had ever started attending this table regularly.
One of the gentlemen, it took him five years to say hello to me. I was at the table at lunch with him, but he wouldn’t talk to me because I was a female interloper of this little bastion. That changed over time. I learned a lot of … I learned how to talk a lot about golf and baseball, and have a thick skin, and between all of that though, these gentlemen helped me a great deal. I could come to the table frustrated, angry, concerned and I could put out the facts, and they would talk about the facts with me and give me some good advice and taught me not to have too thin of a skin ever, and live to fight another day.
Very, very important types of things for a young lawyer in litigation in sole practice to learn. These people, who are still dear friends, the table changed, the restaurant closed, some people are deceased, some people retired or moved away, but there’s still some little nucleus, and after me, a few other younger lawyers. I’m no longer what I would vaguely call a younger lawyer. That’s what lifts you up, you need to have people to talk to, and you can’t go home and dump it on your family because they don’t care about the details of your procedural argument with some judge or the difficulty you had with some client.
Having those peers I’d say is really critical, at least for me, that social support.
Dave Aarons: Right, yeah having that support system that, and that’s just an older way of doing, learning new trades, that seems to have gotten lost in the modern era, whereas, that is the apprenticeship, mentorship model, where you can develop a level of mastery by working in cooperation with those around you, or through someone that has that level of experience.
Deborah Roffman: I suppose that’s true.
Dave Aarons: Some lawyers get that through working within firms, but you were able to do it through getting guidance from those around you that could offer the insights. It seems like it makes a lot of sense, and it would be very good guidance to really connect with the community like you said, so that you can get these types of mentors and really fast forward your learning.
Deborah Roffman: Yes, and this also, relying on the kindness of strangers, I recall early on in the court-appointed criminal defense world, there was a particular public defender, who had been there a long, long time, who was the leading public defender in that particular trial room. He was so kind to me, and I will remember it forever, because that kindness that, the … “I’ll give you the answer, no it’s not stupid to ask this question, I’ll help you learn how to do this, no this is where the forms are kept.” That was of great benefit too.
Find the people who want to pass the information on, and want to help, and they’re out there.
Dave Aarons: Right, absolutely. Okay, so let’s fast forward a bit, so you’ve been doing family law for quite some time, maybe where we could start, in the present day, I know when you first got started with Unbundled Attorney we were exploring the various different regions that you were going to serve and figuring out what was too far, what was too close. What are the reasons that really are the areas that are in your wheelhouse really so you are most comfortable working with and they’re not maybe too far and so forth?
Since then, how things have been going, maybe give a little bit of context on a number of clients you’ve received, maybe on a monthly basis, how many of those typically become clients. Then maybe we can dive a little bit into your process and how you’ve … The process you’ve developed, working leads over the last number of months. I guess we’ve been working together for quite some time now, so, and how it’s been going.
Deborah Roffman: Well it’s a work in process. Can you hear me still?
Dave Aarons: Yes, absolutely.
Deborah Roffman: All right, you faded out a little there for me. I’m a vigorous traveler, I will go to courts as far as three, three and a half, four hours away, on a fairly regular basis. I remember listening to one of … Either Graham told me, or it was a podcast, you had a Colorado lady who would travel many, many hours across the state as well.
Dave Aarons: Oh Marsha. Yeah, Missouri. Was it Marsha Styles?
Deborah Roffman: No, I think it was a woman. I think it was Colorado actually, the one I recall, but in any case, there could be people … I haven’t gone further than about four hours of driving, which isn’t bad … I mean four hours in a day, and doing your court, it’s quite a day. I’ve gotten comfortable in a couple of these courts, one of them being Northampton County in Pennsylvania, which is a bit north of my home county, where my office is, and quite a bit further from my actual home, so it’s a haul.
I enjoy, one of the things I really enjoy about Unbundled, it forces me out of my comfort zone, into places I don’t know. Now guess what? They know me now. I can walk down a hall in Northampton County and the one master, the custody master, knows my name and knows me well, and she saw me once, two or three times in a week, and she said, “My God, you’ve infiltrated us, you’re taking over.” It’s something I just, I’m enjoying that.
It’s also again really hard because you have to learn new procedures, you don’t know the clerks in the back. You don’t know the way the things are handled, and county practice in Pennsylvania is terribly locally specific. Some of the bars are very protective of their local attorneys and can get hostile when you’re not one of the local attorneys.
I’m willing to go about the four-hour range, I have about 30 leads I would guess a month coming from you in the jurisdictions that I have signed up for. It varies with the closing date, it comes and goes, I mean most of the people want to be represented, but some of the people, the reality of it just isn’t there yet. They have to wait several months, I should have hung them much, much later.
I had one … I mean there are cases, of course, needing credible babysitting and all kinds of time investment, but for very little money, and I have one of those cases, a custody case now, where it has gotten so horrific with the communications, that we got the couple on software, so we can actually track the communications between them, because there’s no way to sit and make sense of it all. She’s paying me, I don’t know, 100, $200 a month, nowhere near what it would take to handle this barrage of communications between these two, but the technology may help shortcut that.
To the client whose father paid me a very nice retainer to just be there in case his daughter ever wanted to talk to me, and I think she called once. There’s a wide, wide range of utilization of the services, and on a flat fee you’re, we as the attorney are bearing the risk of … Bearing the risk of what that could turn into, and then also you need to have the skill to manage it so that we’re not getting way out of control with that flat fee, what we’re actually giving away for that flat fee is not too much.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, yeah and you’re … Not every one of the attorneys who work in the network offers the flat rates model, some of them do more of hourly, or certain hours by the hour kind of thing, where yours, my understanding is you do offer some flat rates for specific tasks and for a specific case. Maybe can you talk a little bit about how you work with flat rates? If it pertains to the task, sometimes to a whole case, and how that’s been going so far.
Deborah Roffman: Well quite frankly, I was an Unbundled Attorney before I was an Unbundled Attorney. I have always, as I think many of us do, absolutely loathed hourly billing and charting every phone call. I often get lost in the facts and the situation, and I want to pay attention to my clients and their story and their needs. Not, okay this 45 minutes, and I’m not going to get paid for it, and blah, blah, blah. I just don’t want to think about the clock that way. I want to … I have a more holistic approach to my clients and their cases.
I started doing flat fees a while ago, maybe a couple of years, because I just, I’d been practicing so long that I was pretty confident that I knew what the majority of the cases would take to get done. I could do a vet, quote, and have it be a fairly accurate assessment. Now at this point, we charge by the pleading, or by the hearing. It’s the same rate, I charge the $750 a pleading, $750 a hearing, if it’s not a full trial, if it’s just a simple, if it’s a custody hearing, sometimes they aren’t so simple, but if it’s a custody hearing or a support hearing, master level, or a contempt hearing.
If it’s a trial, a full-on custody trial, it’s a different set of fees, but those initial phases leading up to the trial stage, 750, and if it’s one of those three or four hour away jurisdictions, I may add a $50 traveling fee to cover my gas and tolls, and that’s pretty much how I do it. People like it, because it’s knowable, they don’t have that open-ended fear of “Oh my God, what’s going to be at the end of this?” I don’t drop them along the way if they’ve run out of money. I mean, you’ve paid $750 for me to be at a hearing on July 15th, I’m there and I do the job. That’s a comfort to everybody.
I know, and sometimes it takes me four hours and sometimes it takes me 20 minutes and I tell the clients that. I say, “Listen, I bear the risk of this, you don’t, but then you don’t bear the risk of an open-ended hourly fee that could end up being $3,000 for that day.” They seem to understand that.
Dave Aarons: Right, and every state’s a little different here, so I’m just a little bit curious, certain states, allow you to file a notice of a limited appearance, and then you go in and you’re basically automatically withdrawn. Other times you can do limited appearances, other times certain states don’t allow limited appearances at all, I think Texas and a couple of other states are that way.
When you’re doing the flat rate hearing, is that a flat rate even if it gets postponements or something like that? Or this actually considered a limited appearance? How do you contract that when you have the possibility that sometimes these things can get dragged out and so forth?
Deborah Roffman: Well it depends on the art of knowing when to file your entry of appearance. In Delaware County for instance, if you show up for somebody’s support modification hearing for instance, and it’s relisted, as the almost invariably are, for a later date, for various terms to be met, or data to be gathered. If they don’t want to pay me for that next hearing then, this is what we’re going to do, realistic stage, you’ve gone through a hearing to get there.
If it’s just a continuance, like a flat-out continuance, like the master was sick and it takes a new date, I don’t charge people for those, I don’t think that’s fair. It’s just my way, “I see, no I’ll just come back again.” If it’s something that’s like administrative, some form of hearing first, be it a hearing that’s re-listed, I go, “It’s another fee for the next re-list.” We don’t really use that time limit and appearance here.
Now once you get let’s say to the … Let’s say the masters finding, one of the parties doesn’t like it and they appeal it to have a done overhearing in front of a judge, and I enter my appearance in that case. Now then I’m not just going to quite as easily be able to drop-out if it doesn’t work out with the fee, if I don’t get paid, or I don’t get paid the amount that is appropriate or they agreed to.
Then you have to petition the court and they’re getting, in this area, they’re getting a little bit stingy about, more than they used to be. You used to just not be able to show up frankly, it was very, very loose, but now they’re trying, they’re tightening up on family law lawyers, more like they are in the realm of criminal law layers have always been, you don’t just get out because you’re not paid. That’s how you have to ask the court, and sometimes they ‘ll just say “No, you’re in, you’re in, the money’s your problem.”
Dave Aarons: Right, okay awesome, and so, and I really get where you’re coming from with regard to the flat rate, as far as how you really just want to be solely focused on your client, and not thinking about how much of the clock has gone by, and if you’re getting paid or not. It’s just, you can just focus on doing what needs to be done for that client from that moment forward. I can see that that, really allows you just to be there and be focused on what needs to get done.
Can you talk a little bit about the cost-benefit analysis? About how flat rate billing has worked for you, where some cases, maybe you can get them out the door for an hour or two and then your effective hourly rate ends up being 300 or 400, but then other cases they take longer than expected. How has that generally worked for you relative to perhaps just billing hour by hour like some other attorneys, for example, for attorneys that only have done hour by hour, and might be considering doing a flat rate and how that pencils out?
Deborah Roffman: Well my problem is, if I want to go hour by hour, I have to have that old-fashioned retainer up front, where you’re going to bill from. You need $2,000, $2,500, if you bill by the hour and you only have a $750 amount on retainer, the usual hourly rates are, it’s going to and you can’t bill at $100 an hour, I mean you’re billing at whatever you are, 275, 325, 350, whatever your particular locality is. Those smaller amounts tend to get eaten up, I don’t know, it just seems that they get eaten up faster.
I don’t know if I’m more efficient when I’m doing it on a flat rate, but I just feel that … I’m satisfied personally with the amount that I’m receiving. If it’s a little more complex of a matter, I will take a bigger flat fee, if it’s something that there’s going to be more issues. The per hour has never been something I’ve liked, never been something I really dealt with comfortably. I don’t know if I could compare it to that, because I don’t really do it anymore and I haven’t done it for years.
Dave Aarons: Right, and I really like the word that you said, efficiency, it’s like you find you’re more efficient and in a sense when you’re doing flat rates, knowing that you’re getting paid by the job, or by the task, it puts you in a frame of mind as far as, what aspects of what I’m doing are redundant? What aspects of these systems can be automated or streamlined? Or by doing the same thing multiple times, how can we find a way to do this over and over? It almost breeds a certain refinement of your practice, does it not?
Deborah Roffman: A more plain language way of saying it is, it puts a fire under you. If you’re comfortable billing away by the hour, off some fat retainer, there’s no incentive really, to get better. Because your client’s taking up the slack, they’re paying for it.
Dave Aarons: Right, absolutely. That can segue into what we were talking about earlier, as far as technology and ways you can streamline that. Before we do that, one of the things that obviously that’s a major benefit it seems to me, of offering this type of flat rate, you could almost call it pay-as-you-go in a way, where it’s like phase one is this, phase two is this, and you pay for each phase as you go, is that a lot of clients, the clients don’t have to come up with so much up front.
Certainly from a lead generation model, where you’re not getting a third party referral and it’s someone who maybe hasn’t met you before, having that cost barrier be lower and more accessible, has that helped with your ability to have more clients get started in the process, because they don’t have to come up with that huge amount up front?
Deborah Roffman: Absolutely, and one of the things I like about it, is that even though it may not sound like a lot of money, to have $150, or $200 a month, if you get enough of those, you have a cash flow. One of the problems of being a small practitioner is you can have an influx of a big retainer, and then there could be a drought for a while. Or … you can’t really modulate an average cash flow, but when you have a lot of little clients, each paying those small amounts throughout the month, it evens things out.
It also makes you know what you can expect in the coming week, sometimes in the coming two weeks, the coming month, as opposed to just keeping your fingers crossed the phone’s going to ring and there’s going to be another client coming in.
Dave Aarons: Right. Yeah, knowing that all your bills are covered with your base level expenses, something that Bob Avonco out of Connecticut talked a lot about, he just knows, and when you have that kind of ups and downs, or he gave an example of, he had some family medical emergencies and so forth, and he just knew that the office wasn’t going to close down. He could weather the storm because those plans were in place with clients that he was actively serving, even if he was only putting an hour or two at a time into each case, he just knows that that income’s coming in no matter what.
He talked about the security that gave him, and his ability to run a consistent practice over time no matter what happens.
Deborah Roffman: Yes, so that $100 that someone sends in, pays … Fills the gas tank, pays a bill, and it’s good that it’s there. I’m never ungrateful for a payment.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely. You alluded or mentioned the fact that you do, sometimes a payment plan over time, on the flat rate. Can you talk about how that works usually, and is that in the scenario where, I guess someone may not have the full 750, or maybe if it’s a little bit higher level of case, how you’ve been able to structure that, and how to figure out how much to charge.
Obviously it’s going to have a lot to do with the person’s budget, but certainly, there’s going to be certain constraints around how much work needs to get done each month and making sure you don’t fall too far behind. How have you figured out how to balance that out?
Deborah Roffman: Well, I have a couple of clients that leap to mind, that I’ve dealt with in the last few months. One was a client from, he lives in South Carolina and had a custody case. I believe this predates to my relationship with Unbundled, I don’t really remember how I originally ended up with him. He had a custody trial up here, and also some of the things before we got to the trial stage, it was several thousand dollar bills at the end of the day and has paid me $200 or $300 every 24th of the month, for months and months and months and months, and he’s good for it.
It’s kind of the same as doing a little bit of underwriting, you have to have a sense of who your client is, you can’t … I’ve certainly gotten burned by people many, many, many times in the past, over 21 years of practice. If you do have a good feel for them, and I have another client as well, who currently, who was an Unbundled client, came to me … Initially, when he came to me he didn’t have any money, and he didn’t hire me.
He ended up with a PFA against him that has come back to haunt him, that I couldn’t undo, but I’ve represented him in the custody aspect ever since, and he pays me every two weeks on the 15th and the 30th, the same type of thing. I have found those bigger cases, and his, well his bill has probably a total of 7,000 or 8,000 in the last few months, but he reliably pays away. Those are the types of cases that they work out very, very well. Well certainly there are other cases where it’s 100, 150, those are … That sometimes becomes a bit of a nuisance quality for some of these, they hang on too long and the payments go out too far.
As long as they’re making them, I have one client that’s paying $50 every month. Their case is over, I did it, and there’s a few hundred dollars left, maybe 300, 400, 500, and it’ll be taken care of through the course of a year. I find them to be, if I have a good sense of these people, I can let them do these payment plans.
Dave Aarons: Yep, right, so really it comes down to really your gut feeling about the type of person that you’re dealing with, their ability to make good, and then you can be flexible once you have a certain degree of confidence in their ability to be consistent with that.
Deborah Roffman: You have to be very careful, because you get a lot of people who process their gain and then vanish. The lawyers always the last on the list that anybody wants to pay.
Dave Aarons: Which is ironic too, because you might be the one responsible for all the time that they’re spending with their kids, that’s now costing them all that money, but so quick to forget that it was your role that made all that fun happen.
Deborah Roffman: I don’t even know it’s that some of the people think they, once it’s over, it’s like “Well I could have done that.” Well no you couldn’t have, but some people don’t mean to put you at the bottom of the list, but life happens and … Because what are we really going to do to them? I don’t sue people. What, am I going to sue you for $750? I’m not in the business of suing clients, or I’d be busy with that. Collection agencies have little or no effect on this. If they’re going to pay you, they’re going to pay you.
Dave Aarons: Right, Yep, I agree and on the flip side of that, I mean you’ve got … I’m sure a whole host, a number of, more clients paying on a monthly basis and that you’re able to work for and delivery services for, and help out, that a lot of other attorneys might turn away.
Deborah Roffman: Right, I’m there for everybody.
Dave Aarons: I’m sure, many clients are really grateful for that.
Deborah Roffman: I have many people who say, “Every lawyer I called said they needed thousands of dollars up front.” I got one from you guys this week who’s going to go do a crash show over the weekend, to try to raise the fee for me to show up at her hearing on July 11th, because I said I would just let her hire me for July 11th, and every other lawyer she talked to wanted thousands, and she’s desperate to have somebody to help her get her kids, so yeah, very much. I get paid in a lot of gratitude too.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, it sounds like it. Absolutely. I really appreciate that about you, Debbie, that you just, you really find creative ways to work with folks. You have a good sense for people that you can work for, and your willingness to offer these types of creative flat rates, lower starting fees, payment plans in the way that you do, really just makes a huge difference.
This what this is really all about, this Unbundled Attorney, this whole project is about working with attorneys such as yourself, that are finding ways to serve the clients that are going underserved in this country. It just so happens to be the majority of the marketplace, unfortunately, in the last 10 years you’ve had a complete flip in the amount of folks that are going under-represented, and so being able to offer these options in a way that also is profitable too.
You’re in the business to make money, it’s not a charity, and you’ve been able to be successful with that too. It’s finding that balance, with working with the right amount of clients, but then being able to offer these types of flexible options where you can make money and you can serve the people at the same time, and you’re a perfect example of that done successfully.
Deborah Roffman: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to people after their story, I said, “I’m very reasonable and I’m very flexible, but I’m not free. I’m not Legal Aid.” They get it.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, yeah, it’s that middle ground, it’s not the $5,000 upfront or nothing. It’s not the Legal Aid, it’s the working families, blue collar, people that are, lower-income families that are, $500 out of every check can hurt, it can make a difference, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to bridge that gap by using these options. We talked about flat rate billing, payment plans, unbundled services, delivering tasks, splitting up the workload between the client and yourself.
I mean this is what this is all about, what this podcasts about, the company and so forth, so it’s really enlightening to hear how the flat rate model has been working for you, and the way you’ve been able to tailor that to the clients. On that thread, as far as the flat rate, and given that you’re … It rewards a movement towards efficiency, have there been some technologies or tools or things that you’ve developed over the years?
I think maybe you can talk a little bit about the support staff, your paralegals that you work with, and how have you been able to craft a more streamlined approach, either from the tech side or from your support staff side to make sure that you’re getting these tasks done in the most efficient way, manner, under these flat rates?
Deborah Roffman: Well I have to admit, in my corporate years I was a very spoiled person, I had a full-time secretary who not only paid my personal bills as well as handled my business life, and when I started working for myself I also had a secretary, right from the get-go, even though I really probably, well absolutely couldn’t afford one, but I wasn’t really sure how to operate outside that old-fashioned framework if you will. “Here you handle this, I’ve begun it, you finish it.” I have changed over the years.
As I said right before we got on the podcast here, I said, “My legal career has spanned the dawn of fax machines through …
Dave Aarons: Typewriters, yeah.
Deborah Roffman: Typewriters and leading to word processors, through all this new leading-edge technology that I haven’t even quite gotten all too. I mean law office management programs, that we were discussing, and you gave me the link to that podcast. I’m going to look into that because I haven’t really advanced myself to that thinking, because I kept thinking well I’m just a solo practitioner, why does law office management sound so much bigger? It seems it really isn’t, it’s about getting the efficiency of my sole practice to a higher state. I am going to look into that.
I told you I’ve just been coming across in all the masters, well in one masters office, and then from another colleague, these various programs, at least three types of software for custody cases, that deal with documenting communications and activities of kids, calendars and communications between couples in conflict. Co-parenting, divorced couples who just, or separated couples who just are having all kinds of difficulty making things work.
Those programs, they’ll offer a wealth of time-saving, I was describing to you how previously, with the dawn of social media, would have to wander into a courtroom with three inches of text messages printed out. Or a Facebook thread, and then try to present, shuffle through and find the relevant pieces, or the other side does, and you object because it’s out of context, and the three things before it that would explain it better, or after, were left out.
This software now allows parties to communicate where it’s all in one place. You see the time it was written, the time it was sent, the time it was opened and read by the other party. Lawyers can look in on this, and certain information, that information is only available to the lawyers, the time it was read, etc. These sorts of things I think are just a huge improvement, and I’m looking into adding more software to my practice, which will update me on my old ways.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and certainly streamline. What is the name of the software that allows you to keep track of conversations between two parents?
Deborah Roffman: I think it was called Talking Parents. I actually don’t have the exact title, maybe you can Google that real quick and get it before I get off the phone, but it was, it’s just something I started one couple on, at the suggestion of … Yeah, it’s called Talking Parents, talkingparents.com.
Dave Aarons: Yep, I’ve just found it.
Deborah Roffman: It replaces email texts and other electronic messages between co-parents. This is very, it looks to be a very useful program. There are also some other ones, there are timing management ones with parents, but I’m blanking out as well, but I haven’t used them yet, I have clients use them, but it’s been suggested by one of the masters and it calendars the kids activities, their parents vacations, work schedules everything, and allows them to communicate that way.
Again, all of the output from these programs is then usable in court, in litigation, and in a reasonably clear manner. I had a case where I was on the other side, on a PFA contempt, where the other side, she was an [inaudible 00:41:27] but she was organized, and she walked in with, I don’t know, two inches of texts and emails, all, and various highlighters in different colors and crosstabs, and then she was using that as her evidence to support her claim for contempt against my client.
She plopped this on my desk, because I had to see it, so I start reading it. Well the judge had no patience, she wanted to go to lunch, she was like, she said: “Are you going to read every one of those?” I said, “Well I certainly am your honor, these are copies of things, they’re marked up. If she was going to use these and ask these to be entered into evidence I’d have to read them.” She said, “Let me see those.” She took them, snatched then practically, and then basically read the others.
The one with the [inaudible 00:42:24], she said, “Well the attorneys, correct, she has the right to the originals on these, not color-coded, snipped up, whatever you’ve done here, organized the way you like it, and either you reach this agreement here today, or we’re going to come back to court and have a full day trial on this.” She bullied the other side into taking, altering the custody agreement and dropping the PFA contempt, which would have been a huge problem, because there’s, jails the penalty on a PFA contempt, if the judge cares to do it.
This sort of programming would allow that sort of situation. In that case it was good for me that she didn’t know what she was doing, but on my side, when I go into court I like it, and I can have it prepared so the judge doesn’t fall off the chair because they’re going to have to sift their way through all of this communication between the parties. I think they’re really great programs that are going to help me.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, you want to just … It sounds like it saves a lot of time, from a research organization, getting the case together, on both sides, and even for the [inaudible 00:43:29] or whatever, well who know is they’re actually going to be using this type of thing, probably not, but certainly from your standpoint, to be able to have this evidence, very … And when it’s done, do you just print out the communications, and then you can just tab it from there and it’s the whole thing start to finish?
Deborah Roffman: Yes.
Dave Aarons: Yep, yeah, I mean I can totally see how that would be …
Deborah Roffman: Yes, I’m very pleased with that, plus it’s not hauling in three copies of four pounds of text support.
Dave Aarons: Yep, and then maybe you could talk just a little bit about Mike, and how you guys have worked together as a team to deliver the tasks on these flat rates in a more efficient manner to … And moved in the direction of efficiency together.
Deborah Roffman: Well I have a little bit of a lead on other people hiring people, because he happens to be my son, and he’s in college and he one day said to me that he no longer wanted to work at the pharmacy or the drugstore chain that he worked at, at minimum wage on the cheap, a sort of part-time job. He said, “I’ve been around you of course in your office my whole life, why don’t I help you?” At first, I was sort of really, rather surprised, but as it has turned out, it’s worked out very well.
I, as I said, when I started I had a secretary, but I phased that out, I stopped having secretaries several years ago, I’ve done a lot more of everything myself, but now that the practice is pretty busy right now, we have 60 to 70 open cases active at the moment, I needed somebody there to deal with some of the aspects of it, get those filings done, get those cover letters out, get the copying done, help on some of the early level feed-ins which he is quite proficient at.
He’s working out, I don’t know, 20 hours a week perhaps, and it’s very helpful, so I have a part-time paralegal slash administrative office help, and because he’s my son I don’t necessarily have to pay the market rates, but it’s working out well for both of us.
Dave Aarons: Is that some form of child labor?
Deborah Roffman: Well he’s 22, so I don’t think he qualifies as a child anymore.
Dave Aarons: No, I’m just kidding.
Deborah Roffman: My 10-year old I haven’t dragged in yet.
Dave Aarons: Paid him in ice cream and restaurant dues. No, I’m sure you guys have a good relationship.
Deborah Roffman: No, he gets good lunches, that’s for sure. Mommy’s there. He could do boss table lunches, that’s right. That’s how we roll. Just a small office. I’m about to take on an intern I believe, from a local college of law, just trying to fill in the whole space, who work for nothing, we have a lot of liberal arts colleges all around here that are dying to send people out to get some experience. One of my colleagues has had a lot of those interns in quite successfully, so I told her to send me the stack of resumes, that she didn’t hire, and I’ll look through them and speak to them.
Dave Aarons: Right, because being able to have that kind of support staff to help you with some of the drafting and the preparation and these types of things, especially when you work on a flat rate model, where that support persons hourly rate that you might be paying them is certainly significantly less than what you’re charging. Especially when you’re doing a flat rate, I mean it sounds like, you’d think it’d be like, having that kind of support really makes sense financially, to be able to leverage your time and get these things done faster and quicker, so that your effective hourly rate becomes much higher.
Deborah Roffman: It’s critical actually, I couldn’t have a $50,000 paralegal in here, and be charged at 750. It just wouldn’t … The math doesn’t work at this point. Yeah, you have to push it down.
Dave Aarons: Right, grow your staff as your practice grows in a complementary fashion to make sure that you’re … [crosstalk 00:47:42]
Deborah Roffman: I really think these interns, now the downside of the interns is you have to spend a certain time to show them things, but if you’re not paying them, they’re getting it for credit, or the very minimal amount you’re paying them, it’s definitely worth the value added that they can give you during the period of time they are with you, whether is six months or whatever it is. Stuff can get done, it pushes that paper and those texts out the door. Another set of hands and I think that that’s invaluable as well, to keep the costs down.
Dave Aarons: Right. Okay, well this has been just a wonderful and enjoyable conversation, very useful on many levels, especially the way in which you’ve been working with folks and offering these flat rates and finding just creative ways to work within people’s budgets.
Is there anything, maybe in the last, maybe that you’ve learned over the course of working with us, fielding leads, or offering these types of flat rates, one last perspective that you felt you’ve either developed over the time of fielding the leads? Or just developed over time, that you found it to be critical, or maybe it was a mistake that you made early on that’s made the difference for you in being able to be effective and working with people in the way that you do?
Deborah Roffman: Well I think I learned that right away I learned you’ve got to jump on the leads when you get them. You’ve to text them, call them, write them, if there were carrier pigeons, if they weren’t extinct, send those. You’ve got to get those … Get them to you, because after a few days, people sometimes change their mind, they decide they don’t want to do it anymore, they chicken out or they find other councilors, or just even just self … That one I learned pretty quickly, I know that Graham had always said to me, “If you can’t get them on the phone …” When he first started he would say, “Well how many leads did you get this week? Who answered? Who did you get hold off?” Try to get a bead on if I was getting a good closure rate or not.
He was like, “Text them and call them and email them. Do all three.” Sometimes they would respond to one of them and not the two, so that’s probably really critical, don’t let them linger. The other thing is, I’m still a bit of a person … A lot of us lawyers went to school so that quote, we wanted to help the world, reason. Yes, we’re a business, and yes, that’s how I support my family, but the Unbundled people, again that gratitude and that … They’re just thrilled to have a lawyer, and a lawyer who they feel is capable of representing them appropriately.
I just think that the importance of that can’t be overlooked, and that’s why I like what you’re doing, that 90% is an appalling number. There is, I have to tell you, in my county, there’s a process that has just begun which I don’t like, which is there’s an entrance appearance for a self-represented party, that is required if you’re going to file something in your case. Let’s say the other side filed a modification custody, and you want to respond and represent yourself, you have to file the entrance appearance, their charge is $50 to have you represent yourself.
Which to me logically is absolutely nonsensical, and does not seem right. It’s yet another barrier, it’s another barrier. It’s not even free to represent yourself. There are so many barriers to these people, so many ways they’re told, “No, there’s no answer for you.” I think that we can give them an answer. I think this is just an obligation.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and this is just one way that we’ve got, collectively in all the providers, there are other pockets, all the other attorneys we work with that are doing these, just wonderful … Wonderfully creative ways to work with folks that make a difference for so many people. That’s a perfect example of just how many barriers, especially from the financial perspective alone, that there are in this country for the average mother or father to get orders in place, or someone to get an appropriate estate plan, someone to get the documents filed for the right to citizenship or permanent residency.
I mean all these types of issues that make it so difficult for these folks to be able to defend their rights and get their orders in place that they need to be able to parent their kids. It’s the work that you guys are doing, and we’re all doing collectively, to find ways to creatively work with these folks and offer these options that they can fit in their budget and do it in a way that also, that you can be profitable too. There’s an old myth that you can’t serve low-income families and still make money at the same time.
From what I’m hearing, you’re still doing pretty good, aren’t you Debbie?
Deborah Roffman: I’m pleased with it, and it seems to be going in all of the right directions. Just like this interview.
Dave Aarons: Well yeah, and it’s not even just the leads, or it’s not really about that at all, but just there are ways in which attorneys like yourself can offer these options to folks that most other firms would turn away, because most other firms think, “Well I can’t make money on these cases unless I get this amount of money up front.” That’s just not true. Some of our attorneys that offer the most creative, flexible, low-cost, unbundled, pay-as-you-go types of options, are the ones that are doing just outstandingly financially, relative to other attorneys that are a little bit stringent on, or strict in the way, in the types of cases and the ways in which they’ll work with folks.
Deborah Roffman: I have been questioned, I have been questioned by other attorneys, “Where are you getting your leads?” They are having, some of those other attorneys who are doing more traditional stuff are having trouble finding the people.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, yeah, because there’s less and less of them. There are more and more lawyers, I think it’s something like 40,000 new lawyers every single year, coming out of law schools, and there are less and fewer folks that are there to be able to afford them. It’s a competitive market, and offering these options is essential.
Deborah Roffman: Does the lawyer jokes multiply at the same level as the lawyers? I haven’t heard any new ones lately.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, I don’t know, we just looked that up actually, just the other day, because we were talking about these trends in the industry and so forth, but I think that was off Wikipedia or something like that. There are 40,000 new attorneys every single year. Oh that’s what it was, we were reading about the unemployment rate of new attorneys, and that it used to be something like 90% would land a job back in 2006, and nowadays, I think in 013, it’s more like 60 or 65% are actually getting jobs, and so there’s just not as much work out there for fewer folks, able to do in the traditional manner. It’s …
Deborah Roffman: That is just the young people, I think the new graduates have to get brave and strike out, and they can find the people, once they have that help from that community to help them through the early parts of it.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, it’s just, it’s an adaptation to a new market, the people are still there, it’s just the way in which they need to be served has been evolving, and that’s no way more evident than the way you’ve been working with folks, and so I just want to thank you for all the work you’re doing, and I know it’s making a lot of difference for the people that we’ve been sending you in.
We appreciate the creativity and the amount of service and capacity you’re bringing to your practice to all the folks who we are sending you, so thanks again for everything you’ve been doing.
Deborah Roffman: Well thanks for calling me today, I’m pleased to be invited.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, so with that we’re going to wrap up for today, and for everyone else that’s been listening to the podcast, we appreciate you as well. If you’re enjoying the podcast give us your feedback by leaving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, and feel free to share it with any other attorneys or anyone else that you know that would benefit.
This is a grassroots podcast, so if you know of other lawyers that might benefit from this, from these messages or these interviews, please feel free to pass it along and certainly if you’re a provider attorney that wants to take part in our services, our website’s unbundledattorney.com. We’d be happy to speak with you and see if we have a great fit to work together. With that, we will see you all on the next episode. Thanks again.
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Episode 9: Exploring the Practical Benefits of Flat Rate Billing
In this episode we interview provider attorney, Deborah Roffman, who provides her clients flat rate quotes for selected legal services in her practice. We discuss the reasons why she introduced flat rate price options and how it has changed her practice. Deborah explains why it works for the benefit of her clients, and shares tips and strategies for when and how to offer flat rates.
- Tips on how to transition into a new area of the law and provide legal services in a new jurisdiction
- How transitioning to a flat rate fee structure can significantly improve your lead conversion rate
- How a flat rate fee structure increases your effective hourly rate when you can properly leverage the contributions of support staff
- New technology and software that improves the efficiency of your overall practice
- The pros and cons of offering payment plans, and uncover important lessons learned
- Best practices for increasing the amount of leads you are able to contact
- And much more
If you are enjoying this podcast, be sure to subscribe and receive each new episode as it is published.
For more information about Unbundled Attorney and how our Lead Generation services help grow your practice, visit: https://www.unbundledattorney.com?t=podcast