Want to spark an interesting debate among lawyers?
Just ask lawyers if they think initial consultations with potential clients should be free or not. There seems to be no consensus. We can only conclude that there is no right answer (other than the answer lawyers love to give: “It depends.”)
There are valid reasons to charge, and not to charge, for an initial consultation. In this post, we look at those reasons and how to determine the best choice for you and your legal practice.
Why You Might Want to Offer Free Consultations:
Many lawyers offer free consultations to market their services and to generate leads. Free consultations open the door to potential clients with the theory that the more leads you have, the better chance of finding paying clients. Free consultations are then seen as a cost of doing business.
A lawyer may offer free consultations if it is the norm for their practice area or geographic location. For example, personal injury lawyers, or those working on contingency fee arrangements, often offer free consultations. Or, if all the other lawyers in your town offer free consultations it might make sense to follow suit.
Type of Clients:
Who your clients are may also help you decide whether to charge a fee or not. For example, a free initial consultation might be appropriate for legal aid clients. Or perhaps you work with sophisticated clients that have high-volume or high-value legal work. These clients may be interviewing and assessing several lawyers or law firms to find their long-term legal advisor. It would not make sense to charge a fee in this situation.
You Are Not Providing Legal Advice:
If the meeting is simply a get to know each other meeting and you are providing generic information (explaining your fees, your experience, how you work in general, etc.) then it may not make sense to charge for your time, especially if you are not providing any advice on the merits of the potential client’s case or legal problem.
Why You Might Want to Charge for Initial Consultations:
Too Many “Tire-Kickers”:
Depending on your practice area, sometimes clients like to meet with as many lawyers as possible to seek as much “free” legal information as they can about their case, with no intention of ever hiring a lawyer. Or they like to “kick-the-tires” with several lawyers to see who will tell them what they want to hear. Even worse, some litigants will purposefully consult with a lawyer to conflict that lawyer out of possibly working with an opposing party. If your practice area attracts these types of clients, charging a reasonable fee for a consult will likely act as a gate-keeping function. If the client is willing to pay a fee, it indicates that they are taking their legal matter seriously and are willing to invest in it. Also, if the client is paying for your time, they will respect it.
You Are Providing Legal Advice:
If you are gathering information from the client and providing an assessment of what your views are on the matter at hand and your opinion on next steps to reach resolution, you are providing value to the client and should be paid. Our knowledge and our experiences are valuable and should not be given away for free.
Steady Flow of Work:
If you are a lawyer that has paying clients turning to you on a regular basis through word of mouth or trusted referral sources, the need to advertise free initial consultations is likely diminished as part of your marketing plan.
Time is Money:
Free consultations may cost you money. Spending 2-3 hours a week offering free consultations to people who do not retain you means you have lost out on 2-3 hours of billable work. If you have the billable work to keep you busy, focus on that.
Other Options: Does not Have to be Just “Fee or No Fee”
If you still cannot decide whether to charge a fee or not, there are other options. Some lawyers charge a fee up front for the initial consult and then if they are retained by the client, they offer a credit for that time for future work.
Or a lawyer could offer the first 30 minutes of a consult for free and anything after that will be charged. The lawyer will likely know within the first 30 minutes if this is a client they want to take on or not.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for dealing with initial consultations. Whether you charge a fee or not is a decision lawyers must make within the context of their own practices.
What works best for your practice? Do you charge an initial consultation fee? Is your time filled with free consultations? Let us know if we can help. Hiring a freelance lawyer or law clerk to assist your practice will give you more time to attend initial consultations. Want to learn more? Start Here.
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