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.



  1. Avatar Dave S says:

    Definitely have to be prepared to discuss fees over the phone. I’ve found that the best way is I try to explain how we’ll handle the case but not get into specifics of fees unless and until the person asks. I then try to give them a straightforward answer on the fees after asked. A lot of times, if it’s a non-contingency case, discussion of fee is a litmus test. Better to find out on the phone than to meet with them only to find they’re unwilling/unable to pay. Bottom line is I think you have to go with the flow of the call- people’s motivation and rationale for calling you varies.

  2. Avatar Dan M. says:

    Last week there was a post on here about whether it was a turn-off for potential clients for attorneys to discuss fees on that first telephone contact. It was a good question, and one I know I went back and forth on for some time. I think the problem was recognizing that my time had value, not just value in the general sense, but real (read: monetary) value, and that it was not being rude or feeding the greedy lawyer stereotype to discuss it. I certainly don’t start off the conversation with a long discussion of my fees, but what I do is listen to the client’s issue(s), and then tell them how we generally take on new cases and what, if any, will be charged for a retainer. I let them know (kindly) that I cannot give them an approximate or a range at this point (there are too many unknowns, unless it is a transactional deal or preparing a contract), and that the retainer is neither a minimum nor a max. For me, discussing fees every time with potential clients has often been what separates me from others (in a good way) since they know what they are getting into. I have found that clients appreciate this openness about fees, and it has pretty much completely weeded out those that believe I will take on all the risk of their case without the client having any skin in the game. Bottom line: if you don’t discuss fees upfront, you are inviting possible confusion and frustration (for both the potential client and yourself) down the road.

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    I think the point is being missed. The point of having your own practice is to make money and attorneys do not have the time to invest in every caller. What happens is attorneys get a little info and the quote the caller either retainer, range, hourly or exact-by doing this you are losing out on 50 – 60 percent of your potential clients. Attorneys usually feel they are just weeding out the “bad ones” but the opposite is happening…you are weeding how a huge source of income. With a little salesman ship and an in person consultation you can retain those missed opportunities and dramatically increase your practice. I understand how time consuming it can be but it certainly pays off. You might think of investing in help to assist clients on the phone and in person to go over the non legal aspects of representation.

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