My partner and I both donate an inordinate amount of time speaking to callers and responding to emails. These are not clients or even potential clients. Rather, the calls involve the same legal situations that are presented to us over and over, given our practice areas. If a few minutes of our time will save the person from hours of trying to find the answer, we feel that it is time well spent. We never charge for this sort of informal help, but often they will ask if there is some way they can say thanks.
In a prior article, I told the story of chocolate-covered strawberries. Half joking, I once told a caller she could send a fruit basket for the office. She instead sent some amazing chocolate-covered strawberries. I then wrote about the exchange, and subsequently would occasionally direct callers to that article when they were especially insistent on showing their appreciation. Several got in on the joke, and would send ever escalating versions of fruit baskets.
Then I discovered the site, Buy Me a Coffee. The site offers a simple way to give someone a tip, by buying them virtual coffee. Each “cup” costs $3, and they can buy as many cups as they choose. The value of the coffee is then added to my PayPal account. This offers a simple way for callers to send me a few shekels for my time, without having to track down a fruit basket. And it affords me the opportunity to intercom my partner and say, “I just made $3. How much have you made today?” It never gets old. (I recently learned that I have the option to raise the price of a cup to $5, but I choose not to emulate Starbucks.)
A slow start . . .
So I set up my page on Buy Me a Coffee, and waited for an opening. Following an email exchange where the person was especially vociferous about their desire to pay for my time, I added this line to the end of my responsive email:
“Happy to be of assistance. I don’t charge for this sort of consultation without an agreement up front, but I wouldn’t say no to some virtual coffee. Click on this link to buy me a coffee.”
And true to her word, she did pay me for my time. Three dollars. I soon found that with no further instruction, that was often the amount. I don’t think it was because they thought so little of my worth; rather, they were following my instructions to the letter. They were buying me “a coffee.”
Don’t get me wrong. Every $3 coffee brings a smile to my face. It is still a very nice gesture. They took the time to go to the site and enter all the information in order to buy me a $3 coffee. But I knew in their hearts they wanted a better measure of how much they should “tip” me.
For those situations where I invested significant time to help the person, AND the person was insistent that they wanted to pay me for my time, I stepped it up a bit. Now I would send the link with this message:
“I am glad that you found the information I provided useful, and thank you for the offer to compensate me for my time. My policy is not to charge for a consultation, unless there was an agreement up front, but I won’t say no to some virtual coffee. Click on this link. The coffees are $3 each, so just pick the dollar amount you think is fair, divide by 3, and buy that many coffees.”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Shameless, I know, but this proved fruitful. Certainly an outlier, but one caller bought me 150 coffees ($450). Many buy me 5 coffees, but just as many buy me 15 or 30. The amounts seldom equal my actual hourly rate, but any amount is more than what I got before I started doing this. Oddly, there seems to be some inverse thing going on. If I spend 15 minutes helping someone, they are the ones who buy 30 coffees; but then I spend an hour helping someone else, and they only pop for three.
There was one very nice self-represented party who was dealing with an anti-SLAPP motion, but simply could not afford to hire me. I could see that she was overwhelmed, and told her I would take a look at the motion and give her my thoughts. I couldn’t help myself, and ended up pulling up some prior research to provide to her. I spent about an hour and a half helping her out, over probably three days. I sent the caller the same language, and she responded with 15 coffees. I was pretty surprised by that amount, until I received a notification from Amazon, that she had purchased me a $500 gift certificate. I guess she decided that was better than buying me 166 coffees. Brilliant strategy on her part. I was quick to respond to subsequent emails.
I don’t look with disdain at any tip, but I reserve the right to be amused. I helped one in pro per, who was in a really bad situation with her case. We had 18 emails back an forth, and she would end every email with “You are a lifesaver! Don’t worry, I am going to pay you for your time.”
With the final, 18th email, I included the above language, telling her to decide how much she wanted to pay and dividing that number by 3. She bought me three coffees. I guess she decided $9 was a fair amount for my time. That works out to 50 cents per email. Hey, 50 cents is 50 cents.
What I found particularly sweet is that she sent a long email letting me know she had bought me the coffee, extolling my wonderfulness, and assuring me a special place in heaven awaits. She ended with, “you keep helping, and I’ll keep buying you coffee.” I say again, 50 cents is 50 cents.
An equaling amusing tip story occurred today, which motivated this article. A woman called, in a horrible pickle. She was represented by counsel, but she felt that her attorney was in over his head. I took the time to look over some pending motion papers. I offered a possible solution to her current predicament, but far more importantly, during my review of the docket, I saw that other defendants were about to spring a trap. I told her if she could win the race to the courthouse, she could head it off. Apparently her attorney told her I was mistaken, because she wrote to say he wanted to see the legal authority for my position. A little cheeky perhaps, but it only took me about two minutes to pull the authority out of one of my briefs and email it to her. She was then over the moon happy (as was her attorney, no doubt) that I had saved her. She did as I had suggested and won the race to the courthouse, which conservatively saved her from the $20,000 in attorney fees she would have incurred if the trap had been sprung.
Like the others, she could not say enough nice things, and I sent her to the Coffee site when she asked for way to thank me. Once there, the user is presented with four choices for the number of coffees they wish to give — 1, 3, 5, and an empty box where they can enter their own number. Like Goldilocks, she apparently decided that one coffee was too cold, and three coffees was too hot, but that two coffees were just right. She manually entered 2 in the final box. Three dollars for every $10,000 I saved her. I’ll take it.
The Rule of Reciprocity
You may scoff at the amounts involved, but providing this silly tip method benefits the callers.
When I was a lad, our neighbor asked if I could water and mow his yard while he was away on a long vacation. I agreed to do so, and when he returned he of course offered me some money. I turned it down. Even at my tender age, I just thought neighbors should help one another, and that he would somehow return the favor to my family in the future. I was very deep for my age.
He actually grew agitated by the fact that I would not take the money, and later came by to talk to my parents to get them to explain that it was okay for me to do so.
That exchange was a classic example of the Rule of Reciprocity. The “Rule of Reciprocity” refers to the universal tendency in human beings to feel compelled to reciprocate when given a gift. Denying them the ability to reciprocate leaves them feeling uncomfortable; like they have somehow cheated you by taking and not giving.
Thus, I offer the option to tip me, purely out of compassion. That, or I’m just rationalizing why I am an attorney with a tip jar.