Technology and trends are changing faster than most non-superheroes can keep up with, much less an attorney attempting to run both a law practice and a business. How do you defend yourself against the onslaught of new technology with options changing on a weekly basis? Many attorneys are either completely overwhelmed, become paralyzed with indecision; or simply choose to ignore technology and change altogether. Some just hope it will all simply go away and wish for the “good ‘ole days”.
One of the most critical areas where this holds true is how attorneys accept payments, especially in regards to credit card processing. Historically, law firms have not considered themselves as “traditional businesses” but as professionals practicing law. While it is true attorneys have an ethical and sometimes higher calling to uphold justice that does not mean they do not have to know how to run a successful business, which involves getting compensated for their work. Any practitioner who does not know how to bill AND collect fees, the ability to successfully practice law may be in peril.
Cash flow is long known as the key to effectively running a business. With technology, attorneys now have the ability to finally control billing and cash flow through the use of time and billing software and the use of credit cards and electronic payments. By doing so, you gain control of your accounts receivables and ultimately your overall practice. If your practice currently maintains a significant outstanding amount of receivables, then you are effectively extending credit to your clients. In most cases, law firms do not have an “underwriting” process to determine the creditworthiness of their clients and have little insight into their ability to pay fees. Traditionally, law firms do not perform credit checks or report delinquent clients to credit agencies. By allowing your firm to accept credit card payments, you can effectively shift your receivables to the card-issuing banks. Visa and MasterCard banks have already established the creditworthiness and financial capability of your clients. They are in the business of issuing credit, collecting debt and monitoring credit so you don’t have to.
Credit cards and debit cards are becoming the payment of choice among consumers. As an example; today, credit cards are responsible for more than $2.5 trillion in transactions a year, accepted at more than 24 million locations, and used in more than 200 countries and territories. (Source: American Bankers Association, March 2009). In addition, there is an estimated 10,000 payment card transactions made every second around the world. (Source: American Bankers Association, March 2009). Based on these emerging trends, attorneys can no longer ignore the importance of accepting credit cards, nor the risks associated with bad debts.
How Do I Get Started?
If you are considering accepting credit cards in your practice, make sure the credit card processing company you choose understands the specific needs of a law firm. Most attorneys prefer to accept payment in a professional manner. Because of that, law firms do not have a check-out lane or ATMs stationed in their reception area. There are many custom payment options available to law firms which include credit card terminals and web-based solutions specifically designed for attorneys and their business. The total cost of a credit card transaction typically averages between 2 percent and 3.5 percent of the payment amount.
Separating Earned and Unearned Fees
One key feature to consider when opening your merchant account is the ability to separate earned and unearned fees when accepting credit cards. In order to stay in compliance with the American Bar Association, and most state bar, guidelines for credit card acceptance, a merchant account must correctly separate earned and unearned fees into operating and trust accounts to prevent the commingling of funds. In addition, a compliant merchant account should enable an attorney to designate which account should be used for withdrawals of all processing fees.
The Law Firm Merchant
In the world of merchant accounts, law firms are unique business entities. Unlike a restaurant or retail store, law firms have special considerations when dealing with credit cards and client funds. Whether you are considering accepting credit cards or already offer an electronic payment option, using state-of-the-art technology will ensure you are paid quickly and securely. Some other tips to ensure a successful transition to the modern ways of getting paid as a Law Firm Merchant:
- Protect your trust and IOLTA accounts. Do not allow your merchant provider access to your trust account. Most merchant agreements will require you to give access to this account in the event of a chargeback or fraud. There are merchant services specific to law firms that correctly protect and safeguard your trust accounts.
- Avoid Storing Credit Card Information. If you bill clients on a monthly basis, you will potentially need the ability to re-charge their credit cards. Accepting credit cards through a secure web-base solution will allow you to avoid keeping sensitive credit card information within the walls of your office. Modern law firms are quickly moving away from the traditional credit card machines which sometimes require paper storage of client credit card numbers. This also limits the liability and risk to your firm of credit card information falling into the wrong hands.
- Communicate to your Clients. Let clients know what your payment expectations are on the front end by including due dates, late fees and payment options as part of your fee agreement. It is much easier to establish these guidelines while your client is new and eager to get started. More importantly, continue to communicate to your clients what payment options you provide by including credit card logos or adding ‘Major Credit Cards Accepted’ to your invoices and website. Clients will commonly look for an attorney that provides credit card options. Even popular legal websites such as Martindale-Hubbell have specific search criteria to find attorneys that accept credit cards.
- Use the Technology You Have. Once you make the decision to accept credit cards, be sure to use the payment option that best suit your needs. Depending on your area of practice, and more importantly where you interact with your client there are different choices to accept payment. For example, there are many options to accept credit cards with smart phones, including iPads and laptops.
- Let Your Clients do the Work. By taking time to establish payment options on your website, clients can run their own credit cards. Not only does this provide a convenience to clients, but frees up the time you would normally spend processing credit card payments. This also allows you to avoid ever seeing credit card numbers, eliminating any responsibility to accept, store, shred or protect credit card numbers.
- PCI Compliance. When you accept credit cards in your office, you also accept the responsibility of protecting cardholder data. Be sure your merchant solution is PCI Compliant. PCI-DSS is the Payment Card Industry’s security guidelines for merchants. More information can be found on the Security Council website, www.pcisecuritystandards.org or other PCI specialists like www.PCICentral.com.
If you thought the internet was a fad, swore you would never carry a cell phone(now you do, but still trying to figure out how to send a text message),then you are likely thinking that you will never accept credit card payments from your clients. Like the Internet, credit cards and other forms of electronic payments have become an integral part of our nation’s commerce and the way many people prefer to pay. In 2009, credit cards officially surpassed paper check transactions in the U.S. Last year, over $60 Billion was processed through debit and credit cards. Perhaps it is time to rethink the way your firm handles billing and collections.
You Don’t Have to be Superman or Superwoman to be a Super Lawyer
It is not necessary to be a website developer or have a degree in computer science to embrace credit card payments, just a smart attorney that knows how to get paid. By using technology as a payment tool, you give clients flexible payment options while allowing yourself to get paid quickly and securely. So, with technology moving at a rate that is “faster than a speeding bullet”, throw on your Super-Lawyer cape and take back control of your receivables and ultimately your practice.
The article was written by Amy Porter, President and CEO of Law Pay, an endorsed vendor of the Maryland State Bar Association. If you need more detailed information or have questions, the first Wednesday Webinar will be how to Use Credit Cards Effectively and Safely on Wednesday, October 12, 2011 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
NOTE: This article is adapted and edited from an article that first appeared in the August/September issue of the ABA GP Solo publication. It is from LawPay which is endorsed by the Maryland State Bar Association. We think you will find the information helpful.