man reviewing work at desk with laptop

One of my clients chose to discount a bill by 20% ($1,750) for a client who complained, only to have the client say, “Wow, that’s great. I was only expecting $200!)”

If you’re one of the many attorneys who regularly discount fees, you are instigating your own underearning. and sending the wrong message to your clients. Sure, there are times when a discount is the right thing to do; but, chronic discounting is a different story.

Let’s consider Roger’s regular billing practice. Roger’s timesheets were an ode to the art of timekeeping. He captured every single minute of every day. his timesheet would show:

8:10-8:17 am Read and responded to email from client Brown
8:17-8:19 am Got coffee
8:19-8:23 am Called opposing counsel; left message
8:23-8:29 am Looked out window

You’d think if anyone could actually bill for all time worked, it would be Roger; however, a review of his client bills showed a different story. You see, Roger routinely discounted every single line item on a client bill by 30-35%. Not the total of the bill – every individual entry. When asked why he did this, Roger replied, “I guess I just don’t see the value of my work.”

Roger was sending his clients a clear message – he didn’t think his work was worth what he had intended to charge, and he believed he took way too long to complete the tasks. Why else would he discount every bit of his time?

Is that the message Roger wanted to convey to his clients? Probably not, but that’s the message they were receiving from his heavily discounted bills.

Many attorneys discount a client’s bill before it’s even sent, simply because they believe the client will be unhappy with the fees being charged. The client is never given the opportunity to complain – nor to accept the bill with gratitude for great service provided.

The thing is you can’t ever know for sure what’s going on in a client’s mind. The letter that you wrote on behalf of your client may have been a no-brainer for you; however, if it resolved a problem, the value of that letter may be very high to the client. You’re focused on the money, but your client may be looking at value received. Those two viewpoints rarely intersect.

Now, if a good client complains about your bill, you need to decide whether or not the complaint is valid. Then, use your best judgment on whether or not to discount. If you want to preserve the relationship, then a discount of some sort may be the prudent thing to do; however, do it thoughtfully. If you make discounting a regular practice, your clients will expect a discount every time. (And, they’ll tell anyone they refer to you that you’ll buckle under if they just complain about the bill.) If you choose to discount your bill, ask the client what he/she believes would be a fair fee for the value of the work performed [Note: “value,” not the time involved]. One of my clients chose to discount a bill by 20% ($1,750) for a client who complained, only to have the client say, “Wow, that’s great. I was only expecting $200!”

If all of your clients complain about your bills, one of three things is happening: (1) you’re charging too much, (2) you failed to demonstrate the value of your work in your billing statement and various other communications, or (3) you’re accepting the wrong clients. Find the problem and fix it. You can’t afford not to. Aren’t you worth it?

About the Author

Ann Guinn is a practice management consultant to solo and small firm lawyers and the author of “Minding Your Own Business: The Solo and Small Firm Lawyer’s Guide to a Profitable Practice” (ABA 2010). For questions, please email her at or phone her at (253) 946-1896

Watch the video recap of Ann and LeanLaw CEO, Gary Allen in the webinar: 7 Secrets Lawyers Need To Master To Stop Underearning