The other day in a super-secret lawyer chat room, I announced that I engage in a very specific perversion among lawyers. I admitted to charging for consultations.
In the words of one attorney in the chat, charging for consultations draws clients in just as well as “having a man with a machine gun outside my door taking shots at prospective clients.” Fair play on him for painting a vivid mental picture. Now let me explain why I think he’s wrong.
But first, a story:
When I first started practicing, I offered free consultations. One day I had a lady call me for a prospective criminal defense matter. Of course I invited her to come in, researched the issue a bit, and gaily went to meet with her. I told her the first twenty minutes of any first consult, enough time for me to determine what could be done for them (if anything), was free. After that, I would charge a nominal fee for the consult.
She agreed. Then she took a kitchen timer from her purse, set it to 20 minutes, and put it on the table. As she asked questions it became very clear she had been going to attorneys and using the free consult time to ask specific questions on how best to defend herself. When the timer went off, she packed up and left.
Thus my hatred of the free consult was born.
Additionally, I have some worries that attorneys who take free consults, at least the inexperienced ones who are desperate for a case, may view it as wasted time unless they find a cause of action. The reason this could be an issue is obvious. Conversely, clients who aren’t paying for your advice may not take it at face value if you say they don’t have a case. To some extent, clients only perceive something as being valuable if they have to pay for it. I’ve found that by requiring clients to pay for my time, they’re much more likely to take my advice seriously rather than brush it off and proceed to waste someone else’s time or rely on Google. It’s a strange but true statement: Clients want free consultations, but don’t value the advice received in that consultation unless it meets their already-reached conclusion.
Also, a quick note, Google has damn near made the initial justification for a free consult (“Clients shouldn’t be charged just to find out if they have a case”) obsolete. A client with a working knowledge of Google can generally get enough information to determine if they need to talk to an attorney to begin with. For as much as I bang on about Reddit’s /r/legaladvice subreddit, I will admit they consistently advise people to contact an attorney when the person may have a claim. Additionally, there are plenty of free resources out there, such as NOLO.com, Avvo.com, and multiple law firm blogs that fill this niche now. It’s time to stop acting like offering a free consultation has any purpose other than advertising. The only reason lawyers still offer free consults is to put a client’s ass in their office.
I don’t need timewasters. I’m busy enough as it is. If I’m setting an hour apart from the cases I’m billing, I want them to take it seriously, and I want them to act like their case is worth something. Also, I want prospective clients to understand something up front: my time is valuable and, more than that, they are paying for my time and my advice. That is my stock and trade. Plus, I’m not alone in this, as the value of a free consultation is a debated topic among lawyers. Some view it as a valuable and fair way to bring in business and advise people as to whether or not they have a case. Others look at it as a way for cheap people to steal legal advice.
And let me be clear, to some extent I see clients demanding a free consultation as stealing my product. Nobody goes into their doctor and demands he perform medical tests to determine if they’re sick for free before paying for treatment. The same thing applies here: for a lawyer, time is literally money. Every tire-kicker I spend time with is one less hour I can bill out to an already signed client. My time, advice, and experience are the things I charge people for, and my office isn’t CostCo on a weekend; there are no free samples.
In some ways, my initial contact with a client does serve the purpose of a free consultation. If someone calls my office, I’m going to ask for just enough information to discern whether or not it’s worth having them come in. I may not ask about specifics, and I may cut a potential client off when they start to discuss specifics, but if I’m doing my job right I can usually, in the course of a 12-15 minute phone call, determine whether there is any chance a client has a case. This isn’t a skill that comes immediately, and they don’t teach it in law school; this skill comes only with practice, because it is the ability to assess a case to determine quickly whether a client has even the barest chance of a claim.
That isn’t to say I charge a full hourly rate. I’ll consult with you on the phone to determine whether it’s even worth coming in. I’ll decide, sometimes, at the end of a consult, that I can’t in good conscience take their money. I discount my rate absurdly for them ($100 for an hour of my time). If they retain me, at the consult or later, I waive the consult fee. If I’ve represented you before, I’ll waive the fee. But at the end of the day, if a client doesn’t value their case enough to put some money up to have me review it, it’s a case I probably don’t want.
Or it’s a client I probably don’t want, because if they can’t come up with $100 to meet with an attorney, they’re unlikely to come up with the $2,000 I’m going to ask for as a retainer.
Or it’s a loss of revenue from other clients.
Wait, what? Yeah. Back when I did free consults, I would lose paying clients because of them. Here’s one for you:
I did a free consult with a prospective client on a complicated contract issue. I gave him an hour of my time, got the facts, and quoted him my very reasonable retainer and fees. He wanted to think about it. I understand, it wasn’t a small amount of money, and I got the vibe halfway through he wasn’t looking to hire a lawyer so much as to have me explain what was happening to him.
The next day, I received a referral call. Another lawyer had suggested me to a prospective client. The prospective client had money and was sold on me based on the referral. He wanted to make an appointment to go over his case. Visions of dollar bills floated through my mind. Then I asked for the opposing party’s name and…got conflicted out immediately. He was the other side to the free consult’s case. I couldn’t represent him.
Because of one tire-kicker who, had he been asked to pay anything, likely wouldn’t have come in, I lost an actual buyer. While my $100 consult fee wouldn’t have made up the difference, it would have at least been a balm. I would have gotten something, instead I got nothing but cartoon flies buzzing out of my wallet when I opened it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty areas of law where free consultations make sense. Personal Injury, for example, where most work is done on contingency anyhow. Bankruptcy, too. My office does free consults for bankruptcy. But we’re up front about the fact the free bankruptcy consult is an advertising technique. Plus, it helps that our bankruptcy intake very rarely has an attorney present throughout…my paralegals handle consulting with new bankruptcy clients, and come back to me if I need to step into the mix very rarely.
If you do free consults otherwise, I get it. It’s a good advertising technique, and maybe for your practice area it makes sense. It does get people in the door, that’s for sure, and it gives you the chance to sign them. For a new attorney, getting a client in the door can be half the battle. As we used to say when I sold cars, “You can’t sell them if you can’t table them.” For me, the difference between what my number of consults could be and what they are is more than made up by the fact that the clients I do sign are at least minimally committed to their case.
In case you’re wondering, I haven’t seen a real difference in the number of new clients, either. My signing and retention rates have stayed fairly consistent. The only thing that’s changed is the people that are coming in are: 1) people who are willing to stand by their case, 2) people who understand my time is not free, and 3) people who, after hearing my basic opinion on the phone, are still willing to pay. I may not be meeting with 15 potential new clients a week, but the 2-4 I am meeting will generally retain me, and we both know up front that I expect to be paid.
Now when people ask “do you do free consults” over the phone, I answer with “this is the free consult.”
If they don’t like it, that’s fine. But I won’t work for free.