Ditching the Billable Hour

By Jess Birken

If you know me, you know I enjoy the creative and technical parts of running my firm. My passion is helping you love your practices. But you may not know that, once upon a time, I didn’t love my own practice.

I started Birken Law back in 2015 to work with small nonprofit clients as outside counsel. I loved my work, but something wasn’t right. I was dissatisfied, and I had a sneaking suspicion my clients weren’t so happy either.

Life as a Legal Firefighter

Most of my clients behaved like this: They disappeared for months at a time. When they popped back up, they were dealing with a big, scary mess. Or they called but tried to keep my work to the very minimum. They wanted answers to “quick questions” without letting me in on the whole situation. More and more, when I heard from my clients, it was an emergency, and usually one that we could’ve prevented had they just called me earlier. I was in firefighter mode all the time. I hate that mode. 

Plus, fires don’t serve my clients! My goal is to help nonprofits be strong, sustainable organizations. Even though big emergencies can mean more revenue, I’d rather see my clients focused on their mission. I kept asking myself, “Why didn’t they call me earlier, before this became a dumpster fire?” 

The problem? My clients were afraid of the bill. They knew every time I picked up the phone, the clock started running. Why would they call me when they knew every six minutes meant a bigger bill? It finally clicked; my clients liked me *and* actively avoided me. 

But! There was one exception. I had one long-term pro bono client. This client never had a dumpster fire emergency. Why? They didn’t hesitate to ask me questions. Any time they had to make a decision, they’d include me. They didn’t have to question whether it was “worth it” to ask. 

I started to brainstorm ... How could I encourage my clients to call early and often to avoid the big fires? That’s when it really hit me: the problem was my hourly billing model. 

The Problem with Hourly Billing 

No one likes to feel nickel-and-dimed, but that’s the way most of us bill our clients. Everything is broken down into six-minute increments. Hourly billing encouraged my clients to wait for things to blow up before reaching out. They avoided me (and my bill), but then ended up with an even BIGGER bill because they waited! And those big bills just perpetuated the cycle. 

So, I started thinking, how can I reverse this cycle? My mission is to help clients accomplish their mission by doing things right. I need them to call me early and often, but also control their costs…and somehow ensure I can keep my own business healthy and profitable. No small task. That’s where subscription billing came in. 

Exploring Subscription Models 

In 2018, I decided to experiment with moving away from hourly billing. It was scary, and I had no idea if it would work. But I knew something had to change. 

I read a lot of entrepreneur guru stuff and had heard about subscription models for service businesses. I had already been productizing my knowledge, but I still wasn’t convinced that subscriptions were the right choice (read: I was terrified!). I decided to start looking around for any legal subscription services out there. I found John Tobin's Creators’ Legal program and Kim Bennett’s business law program. I had been getting to know Erin Levine right as she was forming Hello Divorce. I even looked at LegalZoom and other group legal services to get the full picture of what was out there. But could any of these models work for my practice and my nonprofit clients? 

I sat with current and former clients to ask them what they wanted out of their lawyer, and what drove them crazy about working with a lawyer. Their answers? They want a lawyer to fix a problem or help them navigate a tough situation; they want to know how much it’s going to cost; they want to know they can stop working with you; and they want to do things on their own timeline. 

Then I asked myself, what do I want? To provide value to nonprofits and get paid for that value – even if it wasn’t a billable hour unit. To serve even more small nonprofits without billing more hours. To NEVER EVER fill out time tickets again! 

All of those needs and pain-points are what helped create Mission Guardian, my legal subscription service for nonprofits. Now, clients aren’t afraid to pick up the phone and call when they have questions. Instead of waiting for problems to become huge and expensive, clients reach out right away. Instead of looking to Google for answers or documents, they use the tools we provide through the member portal. (If you’re interested, learn more at www.missionguardian.com.)  

I knew it was working the first year we soft launched.  Every potential client received an engagement letter offering a choice between subscription or traditional hourly billing. In 12 months, not a single client chose hourly billing. The market had spoken! After that first year, I cut hourly as an option and never looked back. 

Now, my clients have fewer emergencies and revenues are more stable. My firm has grown from a true solo shop to a small team, and we have tons of ideas of how to serve our clients better every day. 

How to Ditch Your Billable Hour 

If you’re looking to move away from hourly billing, the first step is to really, truly understand what your clients want: you need to ask them. We often stay stuck on what we think clients want, or what we know they should have. But we need to meet clients where they are. 

Ask your clients what they really want. What do they like about working with you? What do they find the most valuable? Do a survey for their feedback – give them an Amazon card or something for their help. Take your favorite clients to coffee and interview them. When you get real feedback, you’ll see ways to help them beyond the billable hour. 

Then, the second step: think about what makes you happy! Make a list of your top five favorite clients. Why are they so great to work with? What makes them such good clients?  What is it that they all have in common? Make sure you keep those clients in mind as you re-envision your practice, so you can attract the clients you really enjoy. 

Subscriptions may or may not be the answer for your practice – everyone is different! Maybe unbundled services, flat rates, monthly payments, etc., is a better fit. No matter what, it’s worth the time to consider your options. Even more so if you’re not totally happy. Yes, our industry is slow to change. Yes, there are ethics rules to follow. But you can do this. Making a change in your practice can help you love your lawyer life again. 

Jess BirkenJess Birken is a solopreneur attorney at Birken Law Office. She helps nonprofits solve problems so they can stop worrying and get back to their mission.