Fees for a New Firm

“Never discuss a fee over the phone.” That’s what one of my several mentors told me right out of the gate. It’s a good idea. Get the potential client in the office, get some information about their legal problem, and give them a fair quote. After a brief consultation you can give them a better quote based on their specific facts, and not a broad generalization. But when you’re struggling to keep the lights on, is this strategy really worth it? Should you do your pitch over the phone and hope that seals the deal?

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Talking Fees

With criminal cases, pretty much everything is handled by a flat fee up front. When the phone rings, it’s obvious if someone is calling to shop around and see what the fee will be for their case. In fact, some people will even say “I’m just calling to get a quote.” Or I’ll get “Hi, I was wondering what your fee is on a second offense DUI?” If your business is doing well enough that you don’t worry about the next client, then by all means, tell them to schedule an appointment to meet with you. I’m not in that position yet. So I don’t mind talking generally about fees on the phone. I try not to give an exact fee quote on the phone. I would prefer to have them come in, sit down, and talk with me about the case. Then I can give that person a fee quote specific to them, instead of a general quote for all third offense DUI cases.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable. I get people on the phone who only care about the bottom line fee. This is probably a sign of a trouble client. In fact, I can say that nobody who has pushed me for a fee quote on the phone has ever followed through and hired me. For that reason, I try to get people into the office for the initial consultation, but I don’t break my back over it. I do the best I can to convince them that it will be worth their time in the long run. But that’s all I can do.

If they just want the cheapest lawyer in town, that’s their prerogative.

Setting Fees

Figuring out what to quote a potential client is probably the most stressful part of an initial consultation for me. I love talking to people and hearing their stories. I don’t mind selling myself or the firm. But figuring out how much to charge somebody in a time of need is tough. Roy Ginsburg argues that I should be upping my prices and not lowering them. I tend to give an honest quote for how much I think the work is worth. Of course in criminal law, it’s always somewhat of a gamble. The “easiest” case in the world can turn out to be a black hole of your time. And if I quote a low fee, my client still deserves the same quality of legal service.

This is a great area to get advice from your mentors. I spoke to several other criminal defense lawyers in the Pittsburgh area about their rates. Some were more forthcoming than others, and it helped me get a sense for the general market rate fees on misdemeanors, felonies, and DUIs. My partner and I also had a discussion about our fees, and set a range for ourselves. When I set a fee, I try to stay around these ranges, adjusting according to how much time and effort I think the case will require. I try to avoid lowering the fee unless I think it’s really necessary. Lately I’ve been learning to fight my guilt, and I’m told it’s a good business decision.

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  • Tim

    i think not discussing a fee over the phone is a great way to get someone in your office who will never be able to afford you.

    I know the idea is to get them in the door and convince them the value you provide, but a significant amount of prospects who call me would never be able to afford me. I’m wasting my time and theirs by taking the relationship further than the phone. That’s why I tell them that my minimum fee is x, and their matter will likely be more than that.

  • Over time, I think you will become more at ease with discussing fees over the phone. As you noted, some people are just shopping around for the lowest fee. Those are generally the people who call around and ask for quotes.

    For those individuals, providing a quote can help you screen them out—and not waste an hour of your day meeting with them in person.

    • Tim

      Reading Randall’s comment, I have to agree. When I first started my practice, I would want to get them in the door. However, I quickly learned that if they couldn’t afford me (which seemed to be most of the time), if they were sitting in front of me, I was willing to lower my fees just to get a paying client and to not disappoint the person sitting before me.

      I don’t have that problem if I’m discussing fees over the phone.

  • I stand corrected. I just got a phone call from someone who had spoken to me earlier in the week and asked for a general quote. I’m now meeting with them and they are allegedly bringing an agreed upon amount.

    • Tim

      That happens a lot to me.

      I almost think that some potential clients think that if they can just come talk to a lawyer, they can talk them into taking the case for a reduced rate, which is another reason for discussing the (minimum) fee before anything else.

  • shg

    This post addresses some related but different issues. As you’ve been told, it’s not sound practice to quote fees on the phone, although this is typically how volume practices/mills handle things. Of course, they are seeking a different clientele than you are, and rely on quantity rather than quality as a business model.

    But this doesn’t mean you don’t vet clients on the phone before inviting them to come for an appointment. You need to know first, whether you are interested in taking the case, and second, whether they are interested and capable of paying your fees.

    People calling only for quotes are obviously price-shopping, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in quality representations. Many don’t know better, and don’t realize that lawyers aren’t fungible. They are taught by the mills (who tend to market heavily) that this is how clients should behave. You have the opportunity to teach them otherwise, and explain that the lowest fee may not be what they’re really looking for.

    On the other hand, clients who only want the lowest fee don’t want to come for an appointment for a lawyer who will charge more than others. This is as much a waste of their time as yours. By providing a relative generic range, and noting that you are not quoting a fee as that can’t be done without a better understanding of the case, you can vet those who aren’t interested in paying your fees. Everyone is happier for it.

    When people are referred to you by a current or former client, they already have a sense of what your fees will be, so setting up an appointment is appropriate as it’s not a waste of anyone’s time. These are client who are looking for you, rather than a generic lawyer or a cheap lawyer. These are the clients you want.

    The finesse of handling an initial telephone conference is something that will come with time. You will get the sense of whether it’s worthwhile to meet, or whether this isn’t the sort of client you want at all. And you will make mistakes and survive.

    And finally, you must get over the fear of quoting a fee and getting paid. You provide a valuable service and should have no qualms about getting paid for your service. There is no shame or guilt in getting paid.

    • Josh

      I work pretty much all my (employment and civil rights) cases under contingent-fee arrangements. I used to not quote my fees over the phone. Now I just tell potential clients what I charge: “my fee ranges between 1/3 and 45% of the client’s recovery, and the exact percentage depends on when we resolve your case and whether or not I’m advancing litigation costs. Generally, my fee is going to be higher if I’m paying for the case and the case doesn’t settle early.”

      SHG, would you handle things any differently? Seriously, I’m not trying to be cute here.

      • shg

        Contingent fee cases are an entirely different matter. Josh (the other one) is talking about criminal defense, which cannot be done on contingent fee and presents a variety of issues that don’t exist in contingent fee cases.

  • Wes

    I handle a variety of cases ranging from family law, criminal and civil matters (evictions, breach of contract, etc…) Most of my telephone calls are generally to book an appointment and I have had to learn to filter my appointments with clients that are interested in paying. As I have found most people believe that they can pull on the heart strings when they get into the office and get free legal advice about their case and get you to lower your fees. I feel that giving a general range for services can allow a party to have a reasonable expectation for what can be expected from their case should it prove to be much more than they thought. And to be completely honest I have only been practicing law for a few years. You don’t want people clogging your day up when they expect you to work for free. I believe that if a party has paid for your services you are actually doing them a disservice by speaking with people that are just in your office to get a “cheap” attorney. Your time is valuable in more ways than one (monetary value). It should be treated as such.

  • Dan

    Tim, I think you are spot on with your comment. Like Mr. Camson, discussing fees has been and probably always will be the toughest part of client intake. What I have found works best for me is after having discussed their legal issues over the phone in general, I say, something like, “now you are probably wondering how much this is going to cost me, and for me, my client’s understanding of how and what they are being charged for is a close second only to dispensing good legal advice….” Then I give the prospective client a range, but stress that it’s neither a minimum nor a maximum. This gets everything out in the open and (IMHO) leads to less confusion when the client later receives an invoice. I understand the potential value of having someone come in, meet you face-to-face, and then present the fee information. But, in my experience, there is no sense in wasting my time, or the caller’s having an in-office consultation if the range is something they cannot afford to begin with. Plus, I don’t want to be the sounding board for everyone looking for free/cheap legal advice. Some may say that the free-consultation/don’t-speak-about-fees-until-face-to-face approach is only beneficial if you would otherwise be billing for that time spent in the initial free consultation. But in my mind, that is time I could be dedicating to developing my business and attracting clients that understand the value of my time and advice. As Abraham Lincoln said (or at least I think he did), “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” I’m very much a people person and I love to help people out where I can, but I don’t want to wreck my business in the process. By setting reasonable expectations up front, I think it sets the tone for both the attorney and the client going forward. As a side note, also charge for all consultations (I’m in primarily business law/litigation) – obviously this varies by practice area. Great topic though, and its comforting to see that I’m not the only one that hates the “fee” part of the intake.