Many public interest lawyers hate to talk about money with their clients, especially if their clients are barely getting by.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you?
Jane Consumer is a working single mom with two kids. She comes into your office because she has been sued for a debt. She fights back tears when she tells her story. She tried to work it out with the debt collector. She begged them not to sue her, but they didn't care. She has a job, but money is tight.
You talk to her, and determine she has some viable contract defenses and some awesome counterclaims. You want to take her case on contingency because you know how to get her out of this debt and get your fees paid at the same time, but it is going to cost $240 to file her counterclaims.
You heard someone say at a conference that you should ask her to reimburse you for this cost, but you feel so bad for her that you don't have the heart to ask.
You know that these costs add up and sometimes you wind up eating quite a bit of your time on these contingency cases, so you KNOW that you have to start asking clients to at least pay the filing fee. You gotta keep your lights on too.
But you don't know how to ask.
I didn't know how in the beginning, either. I was in the early stages of my solo practice and I was happy to have a nice and personable client and build on my skills, so I was super lax in asking for clients to chip in what they could for costs.
After I got burned a couple times by people who did not appreciate the value of my work, I STILL didn't ask clients like Jane Consumer to chip in. I made all kinds of excuses for it, such as:
"It is wrong to ask someone to pay, because what was done to them was so unfair."
"She is worse off than I am. She has two kids to feed."
"She will think I'm a snooty bitch because I'm a lawyer and I'm asking for money. Yuck!"
"There's no nice way to ask. She just got off the phone with a bully debt collector who made her cry."
"My friends will think I'm a greedy lawyer if I suddenly start doing really well at this practice."
"I don't have a right to ask yet, because I don't have enough experience."
"I should be giving and generous."
Thoughts like these might feel true, but they only mean you're avoiding something.
Deep down, I had fears that because I was a new solo and new to my practice area, that the only right way to serve my customer was to treat myself like I was still an lowly intern in an ill-fitting suit I can't afford to dry clean, working for free. I am not the first person to tell you that if you cannot take care of yourself, you cannot take care of others. Here I am, reminding you.
If you are weary when Jane Consumer calls you five times a day for reassurance about her case, and she does this because you've conditioned her to expect that your office is a completely free service, you are not serving your other clients as well as you could, and you are not as well-rested as you should be to do your best for Jane Consumer.
On another level, if you are doing public interest work, fighting for the fair and honest treatment of people who are vulnerable or injured in any way, you are not simply Jane Consumer's warrior. You are in her life to be her teacher on some level:
You demonstrate to her that a person who thrives financially can also still be nice, humble, and not an asshole.
If the world's playing field is not level, or the starting line is uneven, you cannot fix that by helping others at your own expense until you're drained of money, time and all your good vibes. The best way you can do YOUR part is to do a great job for each Jane Consumer in your practice, from a secure position in your own life.
Jane Consumer learns on a deep level that her small investment in your representation is an act of "meeting grace halfway." By paying you, she's investing in her own self worth. (Didn't you invest quite a bit in your education and ongoing training?)
When you ask Jane Consumer to pay something, you demonstrate to her that you value yourself. Whether Jane Consumer is conscious of this or not, she will respect your leadership more throughout the case.
I have observed that two potential clients with the same economic situation will show you exactly how ready they are to be empowered from your helping them by how willing they are to pay what they can.
So how do you ask? Start by figuring out what makes you uncomfortable with asking. Have a pretend conversation with a hypothetical or actual client in your mind where you put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they might say. How could you respond so that you are firm, but they feel respected and understood?
The way you kindly let someone know that you cannot help everyone, and that some monetary contribution helps you help them better, is a script we all have to write for ourselves. We all come from different backgrounds and have different styles. Our individual personal stories that brought us to this kind of practice in the first place are as different as our faces. By knowing ourselves, our fears, our biases and our motivations, we can make these difficult asks go gracefully.