Advice on handling the credit crunch and getting paid

Richard Brindley Executive director, RIBA Professional Services I have been frantically busy since setting up my one-man practice three years ago, but suddenly I’m faced with no work and potential bad debts. My main client has just stopped his projects, wants to renegotiate the fees for my work done to date and has warned me that he may have difficulty in paying my existing invoices. What do you advise? Regretfully there is no magic medicine to solve this ailment. No one knows the outcome of this economic turmoil. Those of us who went though previous recessions will have some experience of dealing with downturns, but each economic cycle is different, with new lessons for us all. However, there is one simple piece of advice: if you plan for the worst, you can only be pleasantly surprised. Your first priority must be to sort out your current workload and clients. Keep in close contact with your existing clients. Find out about their problems and concerns. Then you will be better placed to work out together how best to resolve the issues. It may be prudent to accept a reduced fee payment now than to hang out for more later. There is the risk of your client going under and you getting even less payment as an unsecured creditor. You could negotiate a deferred payment or a stake in the projects, but that depends on the future prospects of both your clients and the projects. You should also keep in mind your longer-term relationship with your key clients and how you can continue to work together when the economy picks up. Your next step is to decide whether you can and want to keep your practice going. Assess the minimum income you need to survive and cover your costs. You may need to supplement your own work by doing another job as well, perhaps diversifying into another sector or collaborating with another practice. You could look to share resources and overheads with other practices. Forming a consortium may enable you to create a bigger critical mass and be able to bid for a wider range of public sector projects. Several successful practice networks such as the Acanthus Group were formed during the last recession.

Look for different types of work from different sources in different sectors. Maintaining your cashflow is all important and the key comfort indicator for your funders. the RIBA can give you access to specialist practice. which need not be costly. Remember that “cash is king”. Your bank manager and mortgager have a vested interest in your financial wellbeing. There are several sources of this. Carefully manage and be pragmatic about writing off bad debts. There is still some work about in even the deepest recessions. Your solution will need to be unique to you. and create your own special niche to weather the economic storm.You may decide to close down or put your practice “into mothballs”. development control planning. Share this with your bank manager and mortgager. so they are likely to be helpful. Get expert business. The effect of the global financial crisis on the profession is the RIBA’s top concern. So invoice as quickly and as often as you can. so will need to make due allowance for this. Current buoyant areas include energy audits and certification. Economic downturns create different and new types of work opportunity. Prepare a revised business plan based on your assessment of your business situation and your decision for your way forward. a good bet for funding and worth keeping on their books. and assessing/converting new private housing for public sector housing use. Chase tardy payments vigorously — even offer discounts for early settlement. There are several government sources for advice and support for small businesses nationally and from your local council. Minimise your work in progress. You will need to think and work smarter and harder than your increased competition. legal and financial consultants and a wide range of business and employment support services. You will still need to maintain PII cover and other business insurances. If you are an RIBA member or RIBA chartered practice. plus access to other practices to network with. RB Patrick Perry Partner with London law firm Barlow Lyde & Gilbert . tax returns etc. relate to your specific needs and talents. Think about learning new skills or even retraining in another field. and it is adapting its member support services to respond to these challenges. financial and legal advice. Keep them regularly informed and assured that you are business-savvy.

A solicitor will help and your accountant may also be able to offer guidance. . you can present a petition to the court for bankruptcy (where the debtor is an individual) or winding-up (where the debtor is a company). You obviously need to consider the impact on the relationship that a formal debt recovery process would have. The first question to ask yourself is why is the client not paying? Is it simply stalling to help with its own cashflow. Another tactic can be to issue a statutory demand. with fees starting at £30 and rising according to the size of the claim. How can I recover my fees? This is a problem which many fear will worsen as the recession bites. depending on the size of the debt and the likelihood of it being disputed. Good communication in the first instance is important. This is a formal written demand for payment of a debt that exceeds £750. If matters can be resolved through correspondence and negotiation. which really means a special procedure for handling smaller claims in a county court. You may take professional advice. so much the better. alternative dispute resolution options such as mediation can enable a dispute to be resolved while preserving the relationship. I can’t afford to Debt recovery firms will pursue your claim for a slice of the return. or is there a genuine dispute over your entitlement to the fees? If the latter. If matters have to escalate. you may have to be prepared for a fight. Taking a client to court can be an effective method of debt recovery as long as it has the resources to pay. Recently the Court Service launched its Money Claim Online can I get my client to pay me? My client is extremely late paying me. If the debtor does not pay within 21 days. Check the terms of your contract and make sure you have complied with the machinery for payment that is in place. Construction & Regeneration Act 1996. It is designed to be quick and relatively cheap. there are various alternatives to consider. County courts usually deal with this type of action.000 (www. to avoid it being disclosed and prejudicing your position if negotiation fails. The threat of a demand alone may force payment. mark your correspondence “without prejudice”. If it does fail. where it is possible to claim debts of less than £100. This can achieve an award in your favour within 28 days. Adjudication may be available either under the express terms of your appointment or as a statutory right (if the contract is in writing and does not involve a residential occupier). If you negotiate and are willing to accept less than your full entitlement to resolve matters. pursuant to the Housing Grants.courtservice. People sometimes talk about the “small claims court”.

The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 gives businesses a statutory right to claim interest if another business fails to pay its bills on time. Creditors can claim interest at the Bank of England base rate plus 8%. you will usually be able to recover the fees of the process and interest.As well as the money owed. If there is a real dispute over your entitlement to the money. Debt recovery is a painful process and needs to be carefully thought out. . be wary as a number of notifications to professional indemnity insurers arise from counterclaims that are brought by clients in response to fee demands. Court proceedings should usually be the last resort.

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