There are essentially two schools of thought on whether lawyers should offer free consultations to prospective clients. On one side are the lawyers who argue that their time and advice is valuable and that a free consultation undermines that value. These lawyers tend to practice in areas in which the client will be looking for very specific advice in the initial consultation. Requiring payment for an initial consultation reinforces to the client that the lawyer expects to get paid for his or her services. Requiring payment before or at the outset of a consultation also cuts down on clients who schedule an appointment but never show up.
On the other side are the attorneys for whom free consultations are commonly offered in their practice areas. This is particularly true for contingent fee work, such as personal injury, workers compensation, and plaintiff’s employment law. Other high-competition practice areas, such as bankruptcy and criminal law, tend toward free consultations. In these areas the free consultations are a way of convincing the client to visit your office to meet with you, at which point you have the opportunity to “close the deal” and convince the client to sign a representation agreement.
As one might expect, regardless of the practice area, newer and less-busy lawyers tend to offer more free consultations. Although one may give away some value in answering a prospective client’s questions for free, the good will that is built with the prospective client may lead to the person hiring the lawyer or referring friends to the lawyer. Somewhat paradoxically, as lawyers become more successful, they tend to be less willing to give away their time.
There is much room for creativity around initial consultations. In my practice of representing lawyers, I offer up to 15 minutes of an initial consultation for free, except that if the conversation runs longer than 15 minutes, I charge a minimum fee of about half my hourly rate. That way I can encourage lawyers to call me with quick, straightforward questions but I still can get paid for the value of my experience and advice if the question is more complex.
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There are essentially two schools of thought on whether lawyers should offer free consultations to prospective clients. On one side are the lawyers who argue that their time[…]