A month of name-your-own-price attorney fees? Some people called me insane. Others called me stupid. My clients called me awesome. Those were the reactions I got when I posted this video on the front page of my website on May 1st, 2011:

That video kicked off Name Your Own Price Month. The process of setting my attorney fee was relatively simple. I would meet with my client and then perform any work that we agreed to. Once I had performed all of their services, we would meet again to wrap everything up. At this meeting, the client would sign a payment agreement, where they filled out how much my attorney fee would be, and how many monthly payments they would take to pay it. I simply asked that their chosen attorney fee take into account these three factors:

  1. The value of the services my client received;
  2. My client’s satisfaction the customer service and representation of my firm; and
  3. The attorney fee that my client could afford to pay.

When the month began, the most common question I got, especially from other lawyers, was why on earth I would give anyone the chance to take such advantage of me. Call me naïve, but I think people are better than that. The good news is, I was right.

When I began the month, I made a promise to myself. I would stick to my guns. If someone wrote a big fat zero on the attorney fee agreement, I had to accept it. I could ask them why, but no more. I’ll admit, every time I sat down with a client to wrap up everything, I was terrified of the number they would write down. To my surprise, not once should I have been. On more than one occasion I was pleasantly surprised. The best part was, almost every one of my clients was happy to break down for me why they paid me what they did. In my three years of practice, I have never received so much constructive feedback as I did over the month of May. Clients gave me incredible insight into how they perceived my firm and me, what I did well, and what I could improve on.

NYOP Month paid off for me in few ways. Like most lawyers, I had run across a few prospective clients that desperately needed my services but either could not legitimately afford me or simply wouldn’t get off the fence. NYOP Month got rid of the largest obstacle for these clients: money. Over the past two months, I have already seen an increase in referrals from these clients. Former fence sitters, now that they have seen the need for and the quality of my services, are telling all of their friends to get off their butts and hire me. That’s marketing you can’t buy.

Beyond the joy of helping people who are usually shut out of decent legal representation because of financial concerns, NYOP Month also provided an invaluable service to my firm. I finally got some honest answers on what my services are worth to the people who are paying for them.

Figuring out the attorney fee structure for your firm is a complicated and arcane process. The thing most of us looked at when we started our firms was what other firms in the area charge. That is what I did. Then I made my prices a little bit lower. The problem being cheaper than other firms doesn’t mean you are affordable to your target client. It just means you get paid less when you find someone who will hire you.

Some of us talked to marketing experts or business coaches to figure out our attorney fees. Consulting these experts gave me a few, vague, schools of thought for pricing something as amorphous as my time and expertise. Some would tell you to charge higher, so that you can go after just a few clients and still be making a healthy profit. Others will tell you to make your prices low enough to increase volume, thus increasing your total revenue. There are plenty of other strategies, but that is a topic for a different day.

Traditional pricing methods do raise issues that you should consider when you are determining your attorney fees. The problem is, none of these methods actually takes into consideration how your target client views the value of your services. NYOP Month allowed me to go out and simply ask them.

For the most part, the clients that I had during NYOP Month were the same types of clients that I am aiming to work with during the rest of the year. That’s not surprising, since, aside from the NYOP program, none of my marketing and networking strategies changed during the month of May. For the most part, NYOP clients paid less than what I would have charged them any other time of year. What was interesting, however, was that most of my clients paid almost exactly the same prices for the same services as other NYOP clients did. This provided me a great baseline to look at when I am revising my attorney fee schedule. I have far better information now for creating a realistic and marketable attorney fee schedule than I did a few months ago.

The last thing I noticed when doing Name Your Own Price Month was the increase in publicity I received. When I did something different and unexpected, people noticed me. This is the greatest lesson from NYOP Month. Have the courage to do something unique with your firm. If you have a crazy idea, try it for a month. You never know what you might learn or who you might meet. In an industry as stagnant as the law, doing something different almost always gets you noticed. Contrary to what some people will tell you, that’s a good thing.

Alex Bajwa is a Minnesota estate planning attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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