How To Handle Tire Kickers

One of the biggest challenges for attorneys is balancing their current caseload against making sure new cases are coming through the door. Not every potential client, however, is created equal. Beware of the dreaded tire kicker—also known as a time vampire.

Here are some tips for handling a tire kicker the next time they call.

Hallmarks of a Tire Kicker

Let’s be honest, spotting a tire kicker is like spotting pornography—you know it when you see it. That said, here are just a few of my personal favorite hallmarks of a tire kicker:

  • “I just need some quick legal advice.” Did you pay attention? This tire kicker isn’t looking for a lawyer. They are not looking for information. They are looking for quick legal advice. You might as well replace the word quick with free.
  • “I’m calling to get my free consultation.” There are plenty of people who will call a lawyer because they offer a free consultation. But the people who actually want to hire you will rarely start off the conversation by referring to the free consultation. It’s also important to pay attention to the verbiage here. They are not calling to ask how the free consultation works. They are calling because they believe they are entitled to a free consultation.
  • “Yeah, I just have a question that I need answered.” Again, pay attention to what they said. They are not looking for an attorney. They are looking for information.
  • “I’m just calling around talking to various attorneys about  . . . ” You lost me at “calling around.”
  • Repeated calls without leaving a message. This type of tire kicker will not leave a message. Why? Because they know you will instantly identify them as tire kicker and not call them back.

Another type of tire kicker is the person who wants you to backseat drive their current representation or pro se case. I debated whether this person is truly a tire kicker—they have already paid another attorney. But they are still a tire kicker because they probably bargained their way into the cheapest attorney, and now they want you (the real expert) to help them out. They don’t want to hire you, they just want you to give them the roadmap to handling the case.

Go Ahead, Give One Free Test Ride

Yes, I’m suggesting you (slightly) indulge the tire kicker for two reasons:

  1. There is always the chance the potential client is not a tire kicker.
  2. Even if they are a tire-kicker, they can still say good (or bad) things about you. It only takes a few minutes to create a memorable impression, as opposed to a negative one.

Tell the potential client you understand their concerns and that you can help. And you can also provide information (not advice) about the general options the potential client can pursue.

At that point, close the loop. Explain to the potential client you need to review documents and meet with them further in order to evaluate their options and decide on a course of action. Take this time to explain how your fees work for that type of meeting—which will likely run the gamut of a paid consultation to formal representation.

Does that open the door for more free questions? Of course it does. But you’ve made it crystal clear you will not provide any advice without more information and a representation agreement. You have hopefully proven to the potential client you know what you are talking about, and that you can help.

Sometimes, you can convert a tire kicker into an actual client.

And if nothing else, you have informed one more person that you know what you’re doing and you can help. Maybe they won’t hire you for this issue. But they may hire you the next time. Or they might tell their friends. Both have happened to me.

Free Advice is Bad, Incomplete, and Unhelpful Advice

Giving legal advice over the phone is like asking your doctor to diagnose you over the phone.

You can, and should, empathize with the potential client and explain you understand their desire for an easy answer. But you also need to explain to the potential client you cannot provide a quick answer because, at this point, you are not their attorney and you would be doing them more harm than good. In order to evaluate options and remedies, you need the whole picture from the potential client. Don’t make things worse by letting them plow ahead based on an incorrect assumption or misunderstanding.

Many tire kickers, in response, will say, “I’m not looking to hire an attorney at this point” or “I can’t afford an attorney at this point.” If they say they cannot afford an attorney, go ahead and provide them with the names and numbers of a couple legal service providers. You might be surprised how many tire kickers will say they make too much for legal aid and just need some quick answers. Take this as another opportunity to explain to your potential client why quick answers are usually not good answers.

Only One Free Ride

You should have an unwavering rule for the second call or inquiry from a tire kicker: you cannot tell them anything else until you represent them.

This rule should have two effects on the tire kicker: either they will stop calling you, or they will hire you. If you crack open the door, even just a little, you will find that tire kickers will frequently request small “follow ups.”

If you aren’t paying attention, that request may seem innocuous. If you are paying attention, you should realize that between five emails and three phone calls, a tire kicker has basically cobbled together your legal opinion and advice on an issue.

This increases your exposure to a potential ethics complaint or malpractice claim. You don’t represent the tire kicker, and you are not getting paid for your time. And you probably don’t know enough about the tire kicker and their situation to offer good advice.

When In Doubt, Trust Your Gut

I represent consumers because I like fighting for the little guy. That also means, despite my rather grumpy personality, I’m a softie who wants to help people. Sometimes that means my heart overrides my brain when I get a call from an obvious tire kicker.

But not every perceived tire kicker is an actual tire kicker. Maybe they just don’t know how to talk to an attorney. Maybe they have never talked to an attorney before. Or maybe they just got ripped off or had a bad experience with another attorney. In other words, you cannot and should not have hard and fast rules when it comes to dealing with perceived tire kickers.

If you think someone may have a good case or may hire you, make that additional effort to show them you are the right attorney. On the flip side, if they seem like a potential client, but they are driving you crazy, go ahead and cut them loose. Your gut is usually right.

Randall Ryder
Randall Ryder is the Director of Appellate Advocacy & Lecturer in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School.