This is a very common question a new lawyer asks. The thought process goes something like this:
1. I want to get the (any) client in the door.
2. Everyone else gives a free initial consultation, I think?.
3. I’m too afraid to charge for a consultation because the potential client won’t come in.
4. But my time is money.
5. So, how much should I charge?
6. No, I shouldn’t charge for the consultation.
The dilemma is obvious. You want to get the potential client in the door but you also don’t want to give your time away.
In my opinion, it all turns on where you are in the growth curve of your overall professional life and legal career. Notice, I said, “legal career” not growth curve of your solo practice.
These are my opinions based upon my experience and others but they present a smorgasbord of options from which you can choose. Or please debate or add to the list.
As a new solo your goal is to get as many potential clients in the door as possible so you can practice your client interviewing skills as well as actually having the opportunity to have clients hire you. Initially, you will not generally have many clients (unless you are a seasoned lawyer with hip-pocket business and are going solo). The real value and benefit in this approach when you first open your doors is not so much the exchange of dollars for time, but the opportunity to get clients into your office. Period.
You want as many chances as possible to practice these interviewing skills, polish your dialogue and get comfortable with discussing fees and collecting fees/retainers. You also want to develop your radar for the unwanted clients, those clients who will drain your time, resources and your very soul. You are also giving yourself an opportunity to canvas clients to find out how they heard about you, what they have heard about you and more importantly, are the clients who are coming to you the type of clients you want to service. This is the marketing aspect of the interviewing process which you need to perfect.
As a practicing solo developing your areas of concentration, depending upon the areas of law you are practicing, you may want to charge a consultation fee because;
1) as your knowledge grows, (or in your previous life you have twenty years of other professional experience) your 30 or 60 minutes with a client can be worth more than an inexperienced lawyer’s three hours. You impart more experiential value.
2) Sometimes potential clients are consulting with you to eliminate you as the lawyer for the opposing party because your reputation precedes you. If you get eliminated without collecting money for your time it can be costly not to bill for the consultation. (For example, if you only represent men in the dissolution process, would you ever want to meet with a woman if they are just trying to conflict you out? Why take $250 and be bumped out of a $15,000 retainer?)
If you are now at a stage in your life where you are skilled in screening clients on the telephone and you have other options with your time, including billing out on another matter or a day at the beach with your child, you are at the stage where you can establish a real calculable ‘value’ for your time and should consider charging for that initial consultation.
If you are at this point, you should consider using a different marketing tool. Charge for your time with a catch. If you are hired, the fee collected for the consultation is used against the intial retainer or flat fee. Some will charge one hour at their normal hourly rate regardless of the actual length of the consultation so the client doesn’t feel rushed. Others will charge hour for hour. Again, it is a personal choice. Potential clients now feel more invested in you with this leveraging tactic against the retainer.
Experienced solos with major reputations in their practice areas (except in contingency areas) generally will charge a fixed consultation fee for the consultation. The consultation fee is never leveraged against the retainer. These lawyers know the value of their knowledge and time and, most often, so does the client. These lawyers are not worried that another lawyer is doing free consultations.
Fees for initial consultations, in my opinion, turn on experience, marketing strategy, and the norm for the practice area. If you have a unique take on this common quandry, please share .