“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?
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.
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.