How web programmers should be more like lawyers

I got to thinking the other day how I was similar to a lawyer, but really should leverage more lawyer-ish practices.  How did this pop into my mind?  Quickbooks.  The software I love to hate.  At this point in my life, I use it for invoicing, managing client information and tax reports.  Its way more software than I need, and I got to thinking what other service industry might have software that does what I do.  I’m not aware of something (cost effective) that will do the basics that I want, granted I haven’t really done much research because I own Quickbooks (so feel free to tweet @thecodedog what you use for invoicing and book keeping).

When you set up Quickbooks, you choose a similar industry – and it goes off and sets up accounts and some of the ledgers, etc (stuff I don’t care about). Anyway I got to thinking how the functions of what I do are similar to a lawyer.  THEN I had an amazing idea that I think I’ll implement for 2012 – and we’ll see how it goes (I’ll get into that after these lists) –

Here’s how I’m similar –

  • I charge hourly for my expertise and work (unless its a bug fix)
  • I take on projects, small and large
  • I meet with potential clients to determine if I can help
  • I advise people with my expertise (whether they follow it or not isn’t my issue)
  • I manage multiple projects at once
  • I research and learn all the time
  • I create structured documents
  • Occasionally I build and implement templates
  • I reuse items from other projects
  • I rarely produce a physical product
  • success is determined by the client, peers and typically the public
  • everything I do is to help the client
  • I have a pretty damn good success rate

How I’m NOT like a lawyer

  • I’m honest and not seedy (I know not all lawyers are bad)
  • I’m 100% up front with pricing and charges and my clients ALWAYS know what to expect when an invoice comes
  • I don’t charge for phone calls
  • I don’t charge for quick tasks that take more effort to create the invoice than the actual work performed
  • I probably do not charge enough (thus don’t overcharge) for the work I do
  • I don’t have an assistant to do my dirty work (book keeping / phone calls, research, etc)

There is one thing that a lawyer does that is good that I don’t currently do, and it hit me and I’m curious if it will fly.  Keep me on retainer.  I looked it up and here’s a quick definition for a retainer –

A retainer is a fee paid to an attorney or other professional in advance, for services. Often, retainers are paid monthly, based on an estimate of the amount of work to be done for the client each month.

A retainer might work like this: You would pay your attorney $500 a month for legal services during that month. If you have a question or need a matter handled, it comes off the retainer amount. If you don’t use the full amount of the retainer, in most cases you would not get a refund or a credit toward the next month. If you use more time than the retainer amount will cover, you will need to pay the additional fees.

With that in mind, I’m wondering if any other programmer does this, and if clients would go for it.  In the past I’ve offered support contracts for an app I’ve built for a client.  If they wanted small changes, tweaks (all defined beforehand) they didn’t have to worry about it.  If a user had questions, needed training (again outlined specific hours) that was included.

The upside to a retainer agreement this is that you have reliable/consistent income each month, the client has the assurance you’re not going to walk away from the job.  They have the security in knowing that you’re there to call if anything comes up. They have a reliable budgeted amount to allocate for the project. And most importantly – if you have a retainer agreement with them, they would get preferential treatment and pop to the top of the workload (or as near as possible depending on what you have going on)

The downsides (two that I can think of) is that if you do this with too many clients, you might be overwhelmed with ‘high priority’ work (which would probably happen regardless of a retainer agreement and the same number of clients).  The other (seems petty) is that you probably have to invoice them every month instead of hoping they remember to pay you (which you may not have to do if you didn’t do any work for them that month).

Deciding I’m going to offer this…what’s a fair rate then?

Figuring here in Pennsylvania the typical rate for what I do is $70-$100/hr – are clients seriously going to pay me 4-5 hours ($280 – $500) a month so I’m at their beck and call?  I personally don’t have any clients that large – I think they’d say – no, that’s ok, you can just invoice us for work performed. Maybe if they do put me on retainer – I lower my rates? Even 50% seems a bit steep for some of them and then you’re just screwing yourself because now you’re performing 5 hours of work for half the price you would be if you weren’t on retainer for them.

Its an interesting issue I’ve been pondering.  I like the idea of offing this to clients, I guess if they take it, its a win either way.  Especially if I get a month in there where they don’t use the 5 hours.

If you do this or have done this – feel free to comment below or shoot a tweet to @thecodedog

and if you want me on retainer for you definitely contact me and we’ll talk – jonathan.wheat @ 🙂



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One Response to How web programmers should be more like lawyers

  1. Mercedes Benz says:

    It’s called a support contract, and it’s been around a long time. It’s the same concept, you pay a monthly/yearly fee for someone to be at your beckon call.

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