Collection Advice for Lawyers: Use Detailed Invoices as a Way to Justify your Fees and Get Paid

I received a collection notice in the mail last week, from a Georgia law firm that domesticated a judgment for one of my Tennessee bank clients. I had subconsciously sat on their invoice for a month, mainly because I hated their invoice and didn’t want to forward it to my client.

It wasn’t for a lot of money, but I hated it because it didn’t tell a compelling story showing the value my client received.

The invoice didn’t have the hourly rate of the person providing services. The time spent for each task wasn’t itemized. The invoice provided only minimal details about the work provided. In short, it didn’t prove that value was given, and it didn’t tell a story.

If a lawyer is ever going to advocate, the time is when he’s asking to be paid. When I send out a bill, I always keep in mind:

  • Always provide (too much) detailed information about the work you do for a client on a bill.  Leave the client no question that they are getting lots of great legal work.
  • Include all the “technical” information on the invoice, showing how much time is spent on each task, who performed it, and how much was charged for the task.
  • Most important, craft your time entries in a matter that tells a story, which will show the client the value of your time.

Compare:  the below one (1.0) hour billing entries:

                       “Legal Research on jurisdiction”

                       “Legal Research in Tennessee statutes and cases on issues related to Delaware corporation doing business in Tennessee and whether internet website justifies lawsuit filed in Tennessee”

                        Which one is more likely to be paid?

Joe Paterno’s Estate Planning Sure Sounds like a Fraudulent Conveyance

Amid all of the Penn State mess, the discussion is shifting from potential criminal liability to civil liability, as victims are talking to lawyers about filing civil lawsuits to recover monetary damages.

Recently, the New York Times reported that Penn State coach Joe Paterno transferred full ownership of his house to his wife, Sue, for $1.00 (and for “love and affection”) in July 2011 (4 months before the scandal was publicly reported). The local taxing authorities place the value of the house at nearly $594,484.40.  Lawyers for Paterno say that the transfer was simply an estate planning tool.

If you had read my post about fraudulent transfers, however, you might wonder if the transfer was made with an eye toward getting valuable assets out of Paterno’s name and into the name of somebody who would not be named in litigation (i.e. where someone with a judgment against Mr. Paterno couldn’t reach it).

Lawyers often urge clients to make similar transfers, especially when faced with lawsuits. “What’s the harm,” they might say, because, maybe, the creditors will not notice it or four years will pass. If discovered, the “fix” might be to simply convey the property back, right?

Not always. Here’s the downside: a crafty collections lawyer won’t just ask to set aside the transfer; instead, the creditor would ask that it be awarded a monetary judgment against the transferee of the property, a judgment in the amount of the value fraudulently given.

So, in the Paterno case, that plaintiff would ask for a money judgment against Mrs. Paterno for $594,483.40, which is the value of the property, minus the $1.00 Mrs. Paterno paid.  Mrs. Paterno has never been named as a potential civil defendant in any of the potential lawsuits, but this $1 transfer certainly opens that discussion.

The lesson here is to be careful about being the recipient of somebody else’s estate (or asset protection) planning. They might drag you down with them.

Construction Lenders: Don’t Wait to Visit the Construction Site to Check the Status of Work Progress

Not too long ago, even bad loans got repaid. With so much new money in the pipeline and refinance transactions always around the corner, errors in loan documents or lapses in lending oversight didn’t matter, because undiscovered issues never had time to blossom into problems.  As a result, some lenders got lazy.

As this story from Memphis’ Commercial Appeal shows, Rusty Hyneman’s banker was really lazy. The worst part is the bank didn’t catch the issues until after approving the loans and, worse, advancing an incredible amount of money. When the bank did some basic post-transaction due diligence, the horses were already out of the barn.

After a customary review of active loans, the banker “hit the road to eyeball properties.” On this random visit to the construction site–11 months after loaning a total of $14 million–the banker must have been shocked to find that absolutely no work was being done on the project. Nothing.

That’s when the bank knew, obviously, there was a problem.

Here’s my advice to creditors: Take time to know your customers and know their projects. On a construction loan, occasionally drive past and make sure work is being done. Especially if you are actively advancing money to fund work at the site. Here, $4.9 million of the bank’s advances were to be used exclusively for construction at the project, and a quick drive-by could have saved millions of dollars.

Collection on Unpaid Legal Invoices in Tennessee: One Really Good Reason to Wait One Year

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a recent opinion discussing the elements of legal malpractice claims. The case is Tucker v. Finch,No. E2010-01704-COA-R3-CV, Slip. Op. (Tenn. Ct. App., Aug. 30, 2011).

The case provides a good summary of the statute of limitations on legal malpractice actions, which must be “commenced within one (1) year after the cause of action accrued.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). The one year clock starts ticking “pursuant to the discovery rule “when (1) the client suffers an actual or legally cognizable injury, and (2) the client knows, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, that the injury was caused by the attorney’s negligence.”

How is this relevant to collections? According to the ABA, most attorney malpractice claims are filed in response to attorneys taking collection actions against clients. Once you sue or threaten to sue a client for unpaid bills, it’s exponentially more likely that that client is going to attack the value of your legal services.

But, don’t forget, the statute of limitations for collection on unpaid debt–including unpaid legal invoices–is six years in Tennessee.  Malpractice actions must be filed in one year.

As I’ve written before, this is why lawyers wait at least a year to collect on unpaid invoices.

If the underlying lesson to aggrieved clients in the Tucker case is “don’t sit on your malpractice claim rights,” the flip side of the coin may be “let sleeping dogs lie, at least for a year.”

(Side-note: I’m not condoning malpractice or encouraging attorneys to avoid responsibility. But, I know from experience, you can provide world-class services and, faced with a bill for world-class services, some clients are going to allege you did something wrong. On those clients, wait a year.)

Write the Wrong Defendant’s Name on Your Judgment? General Sessions Litigants Can Correct Clerical Errors in Judgments in Tennessee

Davidson County General Sessions Court (also known as “small claims” court) is the wild, wild west of our local courts. Things move fast, many parties are not represented by lawyers, and there are dozens of cases on each docket.  Because the jurisdiction of General Sessions goes up to $25,000 (sometimes more) and a creditor can get a judgment in as little as a month, I file a number of my Nashville creditor lawsuits there.

The prevailing party usually writes up his own judgment, and, in the rush of cases, the judgment may sometimes include a clerical error, either in the name of the parties, the computation of the amount of the judgment, or other terms.  When there’s an error, the party has the right to appeal the whole thing under Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-5-108, but the best practice is to move to correct the “clerical error” in the judgment under Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-727.

The application of that statute was discussed  in a Tennessee Attorney General Opinion (No. 04-090, May 10, 2044), applying Rule 60.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure applies in Sessions Courts.

Interestingly, the Opinion says that a litigant can only “correct” a “clerical error” in a judgment, and expressly stops short of any relief that a litigant might have under Rule 59 to “alter or amend” a judgment.  This means that alleged errors on a point of law are not in the same category as clerical errors and cannot be changed.

So, if you get back to your office and realize you’ve written the wrong amount on the Judgment–or the wrong responsible party–you’ve got relief. Rule 60.01 does not contain a time limitation, and corrections may be made at any time upon the court’s initiative or upon motion of either party. Parties whose rights may be modified by the correction must be given notice of the Motion. Decisions to correct are within the discretion of the Judge. Obvious errors are usually corrected.

Debt Settlement Advice: Bring Proof that You’re Broke or Don’t Bother Making an Offer

I’m a creditor rights attorney, and, with the economy the way it is, I’m filing collection lawsuits left and right.

In most cases, the borrowers are too broke to hire a lawyer to respond, so they ignore the lawsuit and let a judgment be entered against them. In some cases, however, the borrowers are pro-active and call me to make a settlement proposal.

In the past, when property still had equity and people were just one loan application away from a $40,000 Home Equity Loan, creditors weren’t listening to low-ball offers. Even today, it’s still not true that banks will happily accept 10% of whatever they’re owed.

If you’re going to make a low-ball offer, support it with proof that you’re paying them the last pennies you have. You need to show the creditor:

  • A recent financial statement;
  • A list of all assets, such as cars, real property, cash, other bank accounts;
  • A list of all debts (which shows the creditor who else is chasing you);
  • Copies of recent bank statements;
  • Recent pay stubs;
  • A budget showing your monthly expenses; and
  • Anything else that proves that you don’t have the money to make a better offer.

Again, the rumors of debt settlements for pennies on the dollar are wildly exaggerated. Creditors will accept discounted payments, but they aren’t approaching these proposals blindly. When in doubt, they decline bad proposals.

If you want a steep discount, you have to work for it, and assembling the information listed above is step one in the process.

Enforcement and Domestication of Foreign Judgments in Tennessee: Simple Under The Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act

To creditors’ chagrin, judgments aren’t enforceable across state lines. Before a Tennessee judgment can be enforced against the debtor’s assets in Florida, the creditor has to “domesticate” that judgment, which requires that a second action be filed in the new state to recognize the out-of-state judgment.

Fortunately, this process is governed by a commonly adopted act, the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-101, et. seq.), which creates a stream-lined process for creditors to follow.

It’s generally just a two step process. The creditor must (1) file an authenticated copy of the judgment and (2) file a supporting Affidavit. In most cases, the judgment of the sister state will be entitled to “full faith and credit” by the new court.

There are limited grounds for attack on domestication. The defendant doesn’t get to re-litigate the case; instead, he or she can only contest procedural defects, like no service of process or fraud. These issues must be raised in the 30 days after service of the domestication action.

On June 30, 2011, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a new opinion, at Cadlerock, LLC v. Sheila R. Weber, which provides a good summary of the issues and law presented on foreign judgment enforcement actions. This Act isn’t often litigated, but this is a good case to have handy, just in case.