Client intake is critical to success as a solo attorney. In today’s day and age, the vast majority of first contacts occurs over the phone or over the internet.

Josh wrote a post last week involving discussing fees over the phone. For me and my practice, it has been beneficial to discuss fees during the initial phone conversation.

Unfortunately, I don’t work for free

I do a lot of cases on contingency, which allows me to take cases without requiring a payment upfront on fees. But I also handle cases that require payment up front. If a client cannot afford my fee, I cannot represent them. I do handle cases on a pro bono basis, but I only handle those through a local pro-bono legal services provider. If someone calls me and needs a free attorney, I refer them to one of the local pro-bono legal service providers. I tell them that I may end up taking their case through that agency, but I do not take pro bono clients that contact me directly. For the most part, because many of my clients are financially challenged, there would be no way for me to effectively screen who would be eligible.

About once a week, I get a call from someone who starts off by saying “I don’t have any money/can’t afford a lawyer” and then launches into their case. I let them know that I do handle certain cases on contingency, but other cases I cannot handle on contingency. I still do a free case evaluation, but if it is not something I can take on a contingent representation, I let them know what my potential fees would be.

If it needs further discussion, I let them know to setup an appointment, so that we can discuss how I can help, and what the various fees would be. In many cases, I cannot give an exact quote over the phone, but I still provide a range. I’m very polite about it, but I am also very firm that I need to get paid upfront for those types of cases.

If they want a quote, give them a quote

If a potential client wants a quote after telling me ten seconds of background, I explain that I don’t know enough to give them an accurate quote and suggest they come in and talk to me about their case. Many of these potential clients refuse, and just want a bottom line.

Step back for a second. There are some circumstances that can explain a client’s reluctance for wanting to come to your office. But if they are just calling around asking for a quote, without telling you the details of their case, they just want the bargain-basement attorney. There’s a good chance they will not hold you in high respect. If you feel pressured to lower your rate to be competitive with the other quotes, you will likely end up angry at yourself, and the client, for working at less than your normal rate. Since opening my practice, I have lowered them once, and once was enough to make me never do it again.

In my experience,  If they really want to know how you or your firm can help them, they will ask to come in and meet with you. It’s a fine distinction, but one that I am usually able to spot at this point in my career. If someone balks at your rate over the phone, there is a very small chance that an in-person meeting will result in them becoming a client.

Contingency is not free, but it can be attractive to many clients

The majority of my cases are contingent-fee cases. I don’t get paid unless I recover something for my client. Because most of my clients are financially challenged, I go out of my way to explain the contingency aspect. If I wasn’t so aggressive in discussing that during phone calls, I know there are clients who never would have come to my office. For some clients, I have to explain it three or four times before they understand they don’t have to pay me upfront to handle their case.

Don’t assume that clients understand what “contingency” means. I have had many phone calls where I repeatedly say I can handle the case on contingency, we setup a consultation, and then the potential client asks “how much do you charge to meet with me/represent me?” Once I explain what contingency means, the whole tone of the conversation changes. For individuals in dire financial situations, it is critical to explain to them that they do not pay a retainer upfront.

The bottom line is that if I did not explain the contingency aspect right away, my caseload would be much smaller.

Use procedures that work the best for you

Every lawyer, every practice, and every potential client is different. There are times where I will not give any quote over the phone—generally when the facts are so murky that I need to meet the client to figure out if I can handle it on contingency or not. There are other times when I will quote a fee after a brief conversation, because I know exactly what the client needs and what I would charge. I’m not trying to be rude, but the client needs to know what it would cost to hire me and that I do not work for free.

The bottom line is that you should experiment (within the confines of the rules of professional responsibility) and figure out what works best for you. If you want to do case evaluations in person, go for it. If you want to do them over the phone, try it out. My guess is that a mix will work the best, but you won’t know until you try.

For me and my practice, I do my best to let the client know if I can handle the case on contingency, and if not, the range of what my fees could be.

(photo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/raster/3070330573)