Whether to charge for initial client consultations is one of lawyering’s great questions. For about a year, I charged $150 for a 30-minute consultation for most cases. (I did not charge for consultations for potential contingent-fee cases.) Just recently, I decided to go back to free consultations, in part due to the economy, in part just to see what might change.
When I made the decision to charge for consultations, I did so for two main reasons. First, I wanted to screen out people just looking for free advice. Second, I wanted to feel better about actually giving advice to those who did come in for a consultation.
Besides, I figured that people who were unwilling to pay me $150 were probably unwilling to pay me anything at all.
I made it easy. Potential clients could sign up for a consultation on my website and pay via PayPal. In fact, I insisted that potential clients do this. I also subtracted the consultation fee from my retainer if the potential client decided to hire me.
When the economy went sour, the number of potential clients signing up for consultations slowed down, even though I was getting slightly more phone calls and a clear increase in website traffic. Thinking those people might need an extra incentive to sign up, I decided to drop the consultation fee a few weeks ago.
As soon as I announced the free consultations, the phone started ringing about 30% more often. I also saw an increase in people contacting me after viewing my website, where I advertised the change to free consultations.
I have been more busy with consultations. Before, I would have one or two paid consultations each week. Now, I am scheduling four or five each week.
There is a noticeable difference in those who sign up for free consultations, as well. Of those who schedule a consultation at my office each week, one or two will simply not show up. Of those who schedule a consultation by phone, about half never send me their documents and do not have their documents nearby when I call.
After two weeks of offering free consultations, I am pessimistic. I am spending more time, and I do not seem to be getting any return on that extra time. I promised myself I would do this for at least a month, but as of now, I am planning to return to paid consultations at the beginning of April, probably at the same rate and on the same terms.
(photo: Wendt Library)