Free vs. paid consultations

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consultationWhether to charge for initial client consultations is one of lawyering’s great questions. For about a year, I charged $150 for a 30-minute consultation for most cases. (I did not charge for consultations for potential contingent-fee cases.) Just recently, I decided to go back to free consultations, in part due to the economy, in part just to see what might change.

When I made the decision to charge for consultations, I did so for two main reasons. First, I wanted to screen out people just looking for free advice. Second, I wanted to feel better about actually giving advice to those who did come in for a consultation.

Besides, I figured that people who were unwilling to pay me $150 were probably unwilling to pay me anything at all.

I made it easy. Potential clients could sign up for a consultation on my website and pay via PayPal. In fact, I insisted that potential clients do this. I also subtracted the consultation fee from my retainer if the potential client decided to hire me.

When the economy went sour, the number of potential clients signing up for consultations slowed down, even though I was getting slightly more phone calls and a clear increase in website traffic. Thinking those people might need an extra incentive to sign up, I decided to drop the consultation fee a few weeks ago.

As soon as I announced the free consultations, the phone started ringing about 30% more often. I also saw an increase in people contacting me after viewing my website, where I advertised the change to free consultations.

I have been more busy with consultations. Before, I would have one or two paid consultations each week. Now, I am scheduling four or five each week.

There is a noticeable difference in those who sign up for free consultations, as well. Of those who schedule a consultation at my office each week, one or two will simply not show up. Of those who schedule a consultation by phone, about half never send me their documents and do not have their documents nearby when I call.

After two weeks of offering free consultations, I am pessimistic. I am spending more time, and I do not seem to be getting any return on that extra time. I promised myself I would do this for at least a month, but as of now, I am planning to return to paid consultations at the beginning of April, probably at the same rate and on the same terms.

(photo: Wendt Library)

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  • Sam,
    If you’re still deciding about free vs. paid consultations and intrigued about letting clients set their own rates for you, why not run an experiment in April where you offer paid consultations, but with clients setting the rate?

    As a piece of marketing/psychology advice, if you do something like this, you should include in the offer a statement to the effect of: “Pay what you think is fair. For your reference, most clients have paid $100 for their 30 minute consultation” — this would tap into two important psychological principles: (1) peer pressure — people are likely to do what others are known to do, and (2) anchoring — people are likely to base a quantitative decision on the number they most recently observed.

    Just a thought.

  • dan

    Do you find that different areas of practice call for paid consultations or not? I figure for areas like PI, free consultations are the norm, where as litigation probably not so much. How about transactional areas, like entity formation, estate planning, or IP?

  • I do think I may try the pay-what-you-like approach, and if I do, I will definitely provide a reference of some kind. Hey, I can’t make less than nothing, which is what I am asking now.

  • I think that is probably the case, but since I have a pretty narrow practice, I can’t speak to other practice areas. Also, there are not a lot of other lawyers competing for my clients, and most of the lawyers with whom I compete also charge for consultations.

  • In addition to varying by practice area, I think the benefit of offering free consultations may turn on whether a lawyer expects to get repeat business. An estate planning lawyer may give away a ½ hour, but if the client liked the lawyer they may be more likely to return to that lawyer when they want to hire someone. In a consumer law practice like Sam’s, the clients are (hopefully) not coming back for more advice after their current crisis is resolved.

  • My practice is limited to small business, real estate and local government matters. My receptionist screens out those needing other services. Rather than say that we do or do not charge a fee for an initial appointment, we tell the potential client that we will not charge them without their advance approval.

    I do not speak to people or make appointments with them unless they give me their mailing address. I try to speak to them by phone in order to get enough information that I can do a preliminary conflict check. If the conflict check seems okay, I tell them that I will not charge them except by agreement.

    If the engagement involves litigation, I tell them that I will meet with them to determine if I can help, but that I will not charge them or represent them without a substantial retainer and a written engagement. I don’t want them to think that I’m hired, just because they met with me and paid me a small fee for a conference.

    Early in the interview, I get a pretty good idea of what is needed. If I need to prepare routine documents (deeds, leases, employment agreements, purchase contracts), I quote a flat fee for the service or a range, if the engagement seems finite.

    I try to have a non-directed conversation to get acquainted with the prospective client, if the client seems to be someone I’d enjoy working with, regardless of whether the matter that the person came in for is something that I can help with. This gives me an opportunity to describe my partner’s estate-planning services, as well as discovering that the client needs some other legal services that the client has been putting off, such as evicting a delinquent tenant, preparing a better lease, preparing an easement,forming an LLC, quieting title on a piece of property, etc.

    This general conversation allows us to find that we have acquaintances in common as well as uncovering potential conflicts and reasons for not wanting to represent the prospective client. I also learn more about the local business community and the real estate market, so my time is not wasted, even if I don’t get a client out of the deal. Of course, I owe the prospective client the duty of confidentiality, whether or not I’m hired.

  • Jennifer

    I offer a free phone consultation or charge a $25 in-person consultation fee. With the free phone consultation that is usually limited to questions on my services and fees, some of the basic facts of the case, and a couple general questions on the process.

    With the in-person consultation, I view it as a chance to not only exchange information on the case and my fees, but also to provide a mini “boot camp” on the law, the court process, the issues, etc. (my practice is family law and estate planning). Unfortunately, I have seen people who have gone through a divorce and the attorney never explained to them how child support was calculated, or what would be needed to modify custody in the future, or whatever. My consultation gives them that information in the beginning so they have a frame of reference as the case progresses.

    In the last couple weeks I have received several referrals from people who had consulted with me about 6 months ago and had then proceeded pro se. These referrals had been told I was a great attorney, down to earth, very helpful, knew my stuff, etc. The general consensus is that a consultation with me is the best step you can take when starting a divorce or custody case and worth the fee.

    At some point I probably will increase my consultation fee. But right now, I’m still growing my practice, I really enjoy doing consultations, and everyone is really concerned about the economy and saving money, so $25 seems right.

  • Uncle. Four people in a row were unprepared, so that I could not even determine whether I could help. I am convinced that I am not missing out on any good clients by charging for consultations.

    It isn’t about the money; it is about not wasting my time with clients who are not serious about solving their legal problems.

  • Roy Lasris

    We take a middle ground approach. $75 for the first half hour. (Our standard rate is $250 per hour.) It almost compensates us for the time. Plus, when we give a client advise on how to address the problem and advise him or her (in the appropriate case) that they don’t need a lawyer unless things go ‘south,’ it actually generates goodwill. They do tell their friends that “that lawyer is a straight shooter.”

    Here is how we state our philosophy on our website: http://www.denbighlaw.com/fees.html#ConsultationFN

  • Hi, Sam
    We also found that there was a high rate of abuse when we offered free consultations to consumers. we never do it anymore. in addition, it definitely creates conflict problems. At least in Ontario, if someone has come in and told you their problems, whether they have paid you any money or not, the lawyer is likely barred from accepting another retainer on the same matter. A lawyer may also be barred from future unrelated matters, if the original “client” claims that relevant confidential information was disclosed.
    thanks for your blog and best wishes.
    PS, we also practice in a small niche: environmental law. More at http://envirolaw.com.

  • Tope Ibitola

    A Lawyer SELLS two things BASICALLY:his TIME and his professional skill.A clear understanding of potential Clients’ psychology would show that an average potential client places more premium on a Lawyer’s professional expertise than his time,though the two are inseparable-obviously time is expended while displaying professional skill.In my almost 20 years of practice
    as an Advocate and Solicitor in Nigeria,my experience has been that unless you stipulate even a nominal fee UPFRONT,a Lawyer is guaranteed a waste of precious time by uncommitted potential clients;and its just NATURAL people hardly value what they obtain free!!So l hold the view strongly that consultation fee should be exacted upfront in order to HELP the Client attach some seriousness to the whole process.

  • Tope Ibitola

    In fact,in Nigeria,and it may not be peculiar to us,80% of high networth Clients do not visit the Law Firm for physical consultation,most of them either brief you on phone or on net and settle your fees promptly.Not so for Clients who physically visit your office,though not impecunious,they consider any request
    for professional fee,up front or later,an attempt to fleece them.For such the best precaution is to make them understand that a Lawyer SELLS his TIME just as he does his skill.
    Thank you.