Running the show
Some law firms have begun offering small businesses flat monthly fees
By ROB JOHNSON
For many entrepreneurs, phoning an attorney summons images of a ticking clock and mounting bills. Now law firms are trying to win new customers by offering deep discounts for start-ups.
Some firms are offering small businesses a flat monthly fee rather than charging them by the hour. Others offer flat rates for certain services, such as handling the paperwork for starting a company.
Many small companies say the discounts are a big help at a time when budgets are tighter than ever. Ray Case, a plumbing contractor in Ann Arbor, Mich., says flat fees from attorney Ken Gross proved precious as he journeyed through bankruptcy court, folding one company and forming another. He paid $10,000 total for at least 100 hours of work, and estimates he saved at least $15,000 over typical hourly rates.
“When you’re basically out of money,” says Mr. Case, “you can’t give an attorney a blank check.”
Born of Necessity
The impetus for these deals is simple: Lawyers need to drum up more business, but many entrepreneurs can’t afford traditional payment plans these days. “The economy has melted down, and a lot of work we’re doing is for people on a tight financial budget who can’t commit to an hourly fee schedule,” says Mr. Gross, managing partner at Thav, Gross, Steinway & Bennett PC in suburban Detroit.
Mr. Gross, whose firm started offering flat rates to small businesses in 2005, says his small-business clientele in the first half of 2010 was quadruple that in the same period of 2005. “You have situations where people got buyouts and had little nest eggs of money,” he explains. “They’re trying to replace income from the jobs they lost.”
Sadly, he says, there’s another reason demand is booming: Many small-business clients, like Mr. Case, need help with debt resolution and bankruptcy-related matters, rather than with starting up.
The deals are springing up across the country. In New York, MasurLaw offers small businesses a flat rate, starting at $500, for services such as help with launching a company. Senior partner Steven Masur says that “when the recession hit, we felt that predictable pricing would take the guesswork out of legal fees,” raising the comfort level of potential clients and fostering continuing relationships with them through their early days.
In Blacksburg, Va., Creekmore Law Firm PC introduced a plan last year that charges small businesses a flat rate of $75 a month, after an initial fee of $750. “Some small-business owners would come in for an initial consultation, find out our hourly fees and wouldn’t come back,” says Keith Finch, an associate at Creekmore. “They’d just disappear.”
Proceed With Caution
To be sure, there are some potential hazards for small businesses in going this route. Joseph DeWoskin, chair of the American Bar Association division that specializes in issues facing small law firms, advises entrepreneurs to check references and get promises in writing. Be careful, he says, of “the bait and switch, where they tell you they can do it for this price and then say they can’t.”
What’s more, you can’t expect attorneys to do everything for a flat rate. Most lawyers who offer these deals set limits for what the discounts cover. For example, Mr. Finch excludes some potentially time-consuming legal work from his small-business price, such as suing or defending against litigation, and giving tax advice.
Further, some law firms insist that their discounted services for entrepreneurs be conducted on the phone, rather than consultations in their offices, to speed up the conversations. Others want much of the work to be done via email. That might make for a distant relationship between lawyers and clients.
Some entrepreneurs, however, say that they don’t mind, since they’ve gotten used to dealing with customers that way to save time. Rafe Steinhauer, president of Benefeast LLC, a White Plains, N.Y., company that raises funds for nonprofit organizations, says long-distance contact works fine once a sound relationship is established.
“You don’t have to keep making special trips to the lawyer’s office,” he says.
Mr. Johnson is a writer in Roanoke County, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.