Lawyers spend their days chasing potential clients in the hopes of landing the next great case.
For many attorneys, this means offering free initial meetings or case evaluations to get clients in the door.
But if an attorney spends most of their day meeting with potential clients that never become clients, does that mean free case evaluations are a waste of time?
Yes, sometimes they are
Disclaimer: I try and use a two-tiered intake system. I always offer free case evaluations. I define that as “figuring out what the heck is going on.” Once I have that nailed down, if it’s a potential contingent case, then a consultation is still free. If somebody is being sued and needs legal advice, then they need to sign up for a paid consultation. When I say “figure out what’s going on” that’s all it means.
In a fair number of cases, I cannot get an accurate understanding of what has happened over the phone. I need to see documents and I need to ask more questions in person. Or sometimes it’s a mixed issue of something I handle on contingency and something I don’t. But the bottom line is yes: many free consultations end up result in no paying work. If you do contingent cases, I think that’s something you have to live with. I’m pretty good at figuring things out over the phone or e-mail, so I usually know if I will get paid on the back end of a potential contingent matter.
The worst situation is a potential client who genuinely appears interested in hiring you, but then spends the meeting trying to get free legal advice. The longer you practice, the easier it gets to handle those situations. However, those meetings still rank near the top of mount frustration.
Lastly, one of my biggest pet peeves about free consultations is the no-show rate. Mine is pretty low, maybe around 5-10%, but my no-show rate for paid consultations is zero. When your practice is busy, there is nothing worse than sitting around and waiting for someone to not show up. Especially when you could have met with someone else.
No, they are a necessary part of practicing law
As explained above, understand the difference between free case evaluations and free legal advice. Trying to understand what happened can truly just be that. You can figure out what happened without giving legal advice. Well, I sure you hope you can. If you’re giving out legal advice without knowing what happened, you’ve got a whole host of problems.
In my practice, I generally represent consumers with fairly limited means. Many of my clients would never have become clients if I charged them for the first meeting, because they could not afford it. Some of them would not have paid to meet with me because they were previously ripped off by another attorney. In other words, meeting with people for free works for my practice. As noted above, it’s not a perfect science, but if you think the law is science . . .
Sometimes clients have already decided that you can help, but want to make sure you are the right fit for them. If that’s the case, you will probably get more clients for free case evaluations than you will lose.
Either way, have a reason for your policy
Whether you always do free case evaluations or always require payment, I sure hope you have a reason for doing so.
Here’s a tip: because ______ said so is not a good reason. Maybe that person is an idiot. Maybe that person has so many potential inquiries they use the payment requirement as a way to screen paying clients from potentially non-paying clients. Maybe that person doesn’t actually have a reason for handling intake a certain way.
But you should. Comparing one practice to another is a waste of time. Every has a different way of doing things and every practice area is different. You can’t assume that because another lawyer is charging $200 for a consultation in one area will work in another. And you definitely cannot assume that you will provide the same amount of value (or non-value) as another attorney. Maybe they just quote fees for ten minutes, but you spend two hours detailing the various options and the strengths and weaknesses of each route.
If you find yourself spending half your day doing free case evaluations that never turn into clients, then perhaps something is amiss. Maybe you restrict your free case evaluations to over the phone, or require a small fee for initial evaluations (hmm, that sounds like someone I know).
One of the reasons you need a reason is so you can explain it to clients. Instead of just saying “it’s my policy to always charge for this kind of case evaluation,” I just tell them “look, I need to learn more about your case, but I’m also going to walk you through the options, help you decide on the next step, and prepare you to handle the case on your own.” That sure sounds a lot more reasonable to me.
There is no perfect answer. But make sure there is a method behind your madness.