Collection Advice for Lawyers: Get Your Bills Out on Time

Here we are, at the end of the year, and I’m worried about getting all my collection work done for my clients…as well as my collection work on my legal invoices. Yep, it’s the year end cash rush. Trees are being shaken. Happy Holiday emails have invoice reminders at the end. And, yes, unbilled time is being discovered and rushed out the door.

I’ve talked about the best practices for legal invoices to get lawyer bills paid.

This morning, I saw a tweet by @rocketmatter titled  Legal Billing Rule # 1: The Longer You Wait The Less You’ll Get Paid. 

This is great advice. The longer you sit on a bill, particularly on a complex matter, the less likely it is that the invoice will be paid in full.

If you don’t invoice time as you go, you run the risk of shocking the client when you send them 2-3 months of billable time. It is not good to shock a client with your bill. Clients are far more likely to pay bills as the case progresses, in manageable amounts.

Plus, if a client is going to object to the cost to litigate a complex matter, wouldn’t you rather they see the bills for work after one month of litigation? Even the most eagerly litigious client gets back to reality in the face of a zealous lawyer’s bill. Give them this information early, rather than after you’re neck-deep in depositions, Motions, and unbilled expenses. Yikes.

Lawyers aren’t cheap, and the practice of law is not the type of work that lawyers are willing to do for free. If you want to get your bills paid on a timely basis, get them to your client on a timely basis. If you sit on the bills for months and put a low priority on the invoices, then your client will put a similarly low priority on paying them.

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Is Naming Your Kid “Junior” Going to Cause Them Trouble? Cross-Generational Financial Woes May Result

Big news here at Creditor Rights headquarters: My wife and I are expecting a baby! We don’t know the gender yet, but we’re reading Baby Name Books cover to cover, looking for that perfect mix of tradition, syllables, and what sounds good.

One thing we’re not considering, however, is a Generational Title, i.e. “Junior.” The baby name experts say it’s a mix of good and bad.

From my perspective as a collections lawyer, I think it can be bad, because I’ve seen one generation’s financial and legal troubles wreak havoc on the other generation. This goes in both directions, with sons causing fathers trouble, and vice versa.

Just this past year, I’ve seen liens on a son’s land ostensibly attaching to the father’s land; wage garnishments on the father’s wages based on the son’s unpaid debt. Bankruptcies showing up on the wrong person’s name, etc.

Much of this stems from our online world, which often indexes information about us based on Name and Location (see Facebook). Two people with the same name who live (at some point) at the same address are going to confuse google, banks, property records, and everybody else.

You might not care about confusing your collection creditors (some people relish in this chaos), but, when one generation’s finances go bad, you’ll care about the impact on your ability to get a loan and sell your house, without having to explain the embarrassing details of your dad’s money troubles.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great tradition and a wonderful shared bond between generations. But, when one generation has legal or financial troubles, it’s not just a name that is shared–it’s also the dirty laundry of money mistakes.

Tennessee Court of Appeals Issues First Opinion Examining Text of Tennessee Deficiency Statute

Remember two years ago, when I wrote about the new Tennessee deficiency judgment statute? That statute, Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118, was designed to provide a defense to post-foreclosure deficiency lawsuits where the creditor failed to bid the actual “fair market value” of property at foreclosure. At the time, I said:

For most lenders, this new law should not have any practical impact. While you might imagine there would be various horror stories of lenders bidding $10,000 to buy a half-million property, in reality, most lenders were already calculating their foreclosure bids by starting at what the fair market value of the property is, and then subtracting sale expenses and carrying costs. The most prudent lenders have a standard procedure in place for all foreclosures, and many go the expense to order pre-foreclosure appraisals.

The reason I’m quoting myself so much is because the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided last week that my interpretation is correct. I take credit for this opinion, because I argued this case before the Court.

The case is GreenBank v. Sterling Ventures, et. al. , decided on December 7, 2012, (full text here). If you represent banks and creditors, particularly in foreclosures and collections, you must read this case and consider how your clients’ foreclosure bidding strategies compare with the Court’s decision.

This opinion is significant because it’s the first decision critically examining the text of Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118 and deciding what “materially less” means.  While that term sounds official, the phrase “materially less” has never been used in any other Tennessee statute or court opinion. Ever. As a result, a court deciding whether a foreclosure sale price is “materially less” than fair market value is faced with a completely blank slate.

At the trial court level, the Chancery Court had found, at summary judgment and as a matter of law, that a foreclosure sale price ranging between 88% and 91% of the Defendants’ highest alleged value was not “materially less.”  On appeal, the Court agreed, explaining that the legislative history and goals of the new statute clearly indicated that a foreclosure bid price at 89% of the highest property value was not “materially less.”  (The Court actually went a step further, based on a prior decision, and found that 86% would suffice.)

The matter was appropriate for decision at the summary judgment stage, because, even accepting the Defendants’ facts as true, the foreclosure sale price was still 89% of the Defendants’ highest values and, thus, was not “materially less” than fair market value under Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118(c).

Here are my two take-aways from this decision:

  1. A foreclosure bid of 86% is going to withstand this defense, so tell your bank clients to bid at least 86% of the highest alleged value (whether that be your appraisal, the defendant’s appraisal, or the tax card value).
  2. Under the right facts, a creditor can prevail over a §35-5-118(c) defense at the summary judgment stage.  The first time I saw this statute, my greatest concern wasn’t that my client would win or lose on this argument, but, instead, that this statute created a factual issue that would cause delay and require a trial (and, thus, I couldn’t prevail on a motion for summary judgment). This case shows that you can win such a motion.

This opinion is creditor-friendly, but not overly so. Keep in mind, a bank conducting a foreclosure must still bid at least 86% of a property’s highest value. Taking into account costs of the foreclosure, the costs of “owning” property, and other administrative costs associated with foreclosure, I question whether we’ll see a later opinion on different facts that affirms a lower percentage (65%-75%).