Consultations: Free or Fee?

Recently, I read an entertaining article by fellow solo attorney, Pauline Villanueva, about what a free consultation is not. It was basically a list that was curated among attorneys on Twitter. Some things they determined a free consultation was not include:

  • “Free consultation” doesn’t mean spending three hours with you while you tell me your life story.
  • “Free consultation” does not mean I’m going to prep you for a hearing taking place tomorrow.
  • “Free consultation” does not mean I’m adopting you or taking you to Walgreen’s at midnight to buy a pregnancy test.

Obviously, attorneys have had some bad experiences with the free consultation. Yet, some of the most respected solo practice authorities, such as Jay Foonberg, highly recommend that solos offer free consultations. Others say solos should never offer free consultations. Still others say it depends. To further murk up the waters, I’ll share my experiences with (and without) the free consultation offer.

My Free Consultation Experience

I started out offering free 30 minute consultations in my Gen Y entrepreneur practice (against the advice of my entrepreneur husband). I figured it would be a good way for clients to get to know me and how I could be of service to them and their businesses. Let me say that I did a lot of free consultations. A lot! Some of them even turned into one hour consultations (I know, I know . . . rookie mistake!).

The biggest problem with this time consuming service is that while I had some great conversations with some very interesting entrepreneurs, very few of these potential clients actually became clients. In fact, a pattern developed where I specifically felt that these entrepreneurs had no intention of working with me in any capacity, they simply wanted free legal advice. Who could blame them? However, I am not in the business of giving free legal advice. I do pro bono work with 100 Urban Entrepreneurs and one or two other organizations, but the free consultation was not meant to be pro bono work. It was meant to be a gateway to obtaining paying clients.

One obvious warning sign is when the prospective client keeps mentioning their financial troubles or downright says that they can’t afford an attorney. Additionally, lots of questions about pricing at the very beginning of the consult is probably a good sign of a tire kicker and not someone who is likely to become a (good) client. One particularly bad consult that left me feeling used was a potential client who didn’t want to have a conversation but wanted me to answer as many of her rapid fire questions as she could get answered in the time allotted. At that point I decided to stop offering free consults. It was clear that the free consultation was not serving its purpose.

My Paid Consultation Experience

So I took the bold step of removing all traces of the free consultation offer from my website and other marketing materials, replaced it with the “Legal Strategy Session” and said a prayer. My Legal Strategy Session is a one hour consultation where I answer questions, provide some initial legal advice and potential clients have the opportunity to get to know me. I charge $250 for this service. If the client signs up for one of my monthly packages or ongoing retainer services (not simply hire me to draft a contract), I will credit the $250 against the cost of the package.

The response to this change was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Needless to say, I have now done a lot of paid consultations. I realized that, for me, this was an unbundling error. I did not offer a service where clients could obtain unbundled legal advice. Once I did, my clients showed me that this is something they really wanted. Additionally, my clientele is filled with both committed and uncommitted entrepreneurs. One way to tell who’s who is to ask questions about what type of investments they’ve already made in their business such as what their startup costs have been and whether they have hired other professionals such as an accountant. The paid consultation deters those entrepreneurs that have not made a commitment to their business (and therefore are not willing to invest their money in their business) from contacting me and that’s okay. In fact, its perfect. Every entrepreneur can’t be my ideal client and likewise, I am not the ideal lawyer for every entrepreneur.

Thoughts on the Transition

I will note that during the transition from free to paid consultation, I did have a couple of potential clients contact me via email to request a free consultation because they had previously seen it advertised on my website. I responded to their inquiries by informing them that I now offer a paid consultation and explained how it worked and what type of value they could expect. None of them responded.

Additionally, there is still that dilemma of how do you handle potential clients who would never hire a professional without having some interaction with them first? An important part of the hiring decision for potential clients is whether they like you. And how can those potential clients know if they like you without having the opportunity to talk with you? I address this problem by having an online presence. I blog, I write articles for various websites, I speak at webinars and seminars and I chat with folks on Twitter and Facebook. All of these activities allow potential clients to get to know me and my personality. Additionally, I answer my phone and respond to emails. If a potential client calls, I will be spend 10 minutes or less on the phone with them, giving them the opportunity to get a feel for whether or not they like me. To date, every potential client that I’ve had a brief conversation with over the phone has become a client.

So Which Is It? Free or Fee?

I agree with the “it depends” crowd. There are practice areas where it makes a lot of sense to offer free consultations, such as contingency fee personal injury cases. However, whether you offer a free or paid consultation should be based on a business model that works for you AND your bottom line.  How do you know what works for you and your bottom line? You test. And guess what works as a great way to test your service offerings, your presentation, different sales pitches, etc.? You guessed it – the free consultation.

My experience offering free consultations was very valuable. It enabled me to identify the characteristics of my ideal clients (and my not-so-ideal clients) as well as a service they wanted that I wasn’t previously offering. While I spent a lot of time on this “test,” I am currently reaping the benefits.

So, now I ask you – Free or Fee?

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

This entry was posted in Client Relations, Guest Bloggers, Solo & Small Firm Practice and tagged Rachel Rodgers. Bookmark the permalink.

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28 comments on “Consultations: Free or Fee?

  • Rachel, what jumps out at me in this blog post is when you eliminated free consultations you didn’t just go to paid consultations. The word consultation in and of itself provides an opportunity for comparison shopping by potential clients. ‘Well, this attorney offers free consultations?’. By positioning it as a brand new unbundled service you changed the perception while taking the same ‘consultation’ and positioning it as a valued service with additional benefits. And it IS a valued service to both you and the potential client – you get to screen and they get what they came for, advice at a dollar amount they can afford. Excellent!

    • I have come to the same conclusions as Rachel. And pretty much for the same reasons. The only way I will do a free consultation now is if it is for a 501(c) organization, like a volunteer fire department.
      I will speak to a PC on the phone for 10-15 minutes, but I have found a little problem in getting the PC to understand the potential gravity of the situations they are in now, especially considering the current economic strife and the way Medicare is being driven to cut costs in healthcare. The time will come, though. I guess it is just a matter of faith to me right now . . .

    • Thanks, Susan! I agree that changing the language from consultation to strategy session changes the response that I get from clients. They are looking to me to explain what that is, instead of making an assumption about what it is based on what they’ve seen or heard from other attorneys.

    • I also agree with you on the consultations and being able to charge. I am currently at a Bankruptcy and Tax firm and we are debating on doing consultations for a Fee. (possibly just a deposit) have you worked in the Bankruptcy and Tax areas (consultation wise)

  • Hi Rachel,

    First let me say a big Thank You! I attended one of your webinars with Donna Seyle recently and it was a quick kick in the rear to get my act together and revamp my practice.

    I had similar experiences as you with free consultations – of all the free consultations I gave, only one turned into a client and so far all I’ve got out of it is a simple drafting exercise.

    As for clients who would never hire a professional without a free consultation? I find that of all the regulated professions, the legal profession seems to be the only one where clients expect a free consultation. You don’t get a free consultation with a doctor to decide if you want him or her as your family doctor – you pay for a consultation.

    And unlike having an initial consultation with a graphic designer or a car mechanic who doesn’t give anything away for free at the “consult” but just tells you how he or she is going to fix your problem or just what’s wrong, lawyers do end up giving a lot of legal advice – all for “free.”

    I’ve recently stopped offering a free legal consultation – and now offer a Free Legal Q&A where clients can ask me a question for free through my online office. It saves me time commuting to meet with clients (I otherwise work from home for now) just to answer a bunch of questions they have that I could have otherwise answered over the phone. It also limits the questions they ask me to one or two – and still has effect of being a “freebie”. I’ve only changed since Monday – hopefully it’ll be a good change.

    • Hi Sapna,

      Thank you for your feedback!

      I could write another whole article on what I have learned about the way to conduct a consultation. I think its important not to give too much away in a free consultation. It took a lot of time, money and energy to obtain our level of expertise and lawyers shouldn’t feel bad about charging for their legal advice.

      Personally, I think a legal Q & A is still somewhat time consuming for a free service. I would probably accept questions and turn them into blog posts so that more people could benefit from my answers. I try to make my freebies ones that can be disseminated on a wide level to benefit the maximum amount of people. That’s just my humble opinion. :)

      Best of luck with your new structure!

      • It’s funny you should mention blog posts – because that was exactly I was planning on doing – essentially, the Free Legal Q&A would be something of an idea generator for blog posts that are actually relevant to what people want to know.

        It’s still a learning experience though. But an interesting one.

  • You mentioned that whether you would charge a fee depends in part on your practice area. Do you think a fee is appropriate in family law cases? I’m thinking that if you pass prospects through enough steps that give them information about how your practice works and billing stuff then that first consult will be mostly legal advice, which should be charged for. But if a lawyer has no online presence or intake through a gatekeeper then the lawyer will spend half of the consult talking about their practice and making a pitch. I wouldn’t want to pay for that if I was a client. But once you get into legal advice you conflict that person out, so if they don’t hire you then you also can’t represent their spouse. That’s a loss of money that should be balanced by a consulting fee, in my opinion.

      • Those are great points, thanks. But then there’s the argument that you should always behave like the person you want to be. I had a prominent family lawyer tell me to never take court appointed CPS cases because it would associate me with certain practice areas and slow me down, while behaving like the lawyer I want to be (which in the chat with her is a divorce lawyer for the upper middle class) would make sure referral sources remember me as this more qualified lawyer. Is there anything to be said here about how free consultations might make you appear to other lawyers you want as referral sources?

        • Mike, more experienced lawyers do their own thing and are not worrying about how new lawyers are handling themselves so much. You are building a practice and I venture to say if you asked these same lawyers what they did when they started out when it comes to initial consultations you will find they may not have done what they are currently doing. You need to get your experience in a way which works best for you.

        • I don’t think free consultations make you look bad among clients or other lawyers. I really think its a matter of personal preference and bottom line. Its hard to know whether it will work for your practice or not without testing it first. A good way to test is to start out with a free consultation (maybe think about calling it something else) and try to learn from the response you get.

  • You nailed it, Rachel. I did some work with my local SCORE chapter, offering 30-minute free consults to their clients. The vast majority of those clients just wanted to pick a lawyer’s brain for 30 minutes. Only one or two actually hired me.

    I still do free initial consults, but only after I have screened the client over the phone or via email. I have learned to ask where they are in the planning process and what the prospective client’s goals are before we get too far.

    I know you run a virtual (online) office, Rachel, and I would like to know how you handle screening and initial consults with your virtual clients.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      I communicate with potential clients via telephone, email and through my secure online law office portal. Usually its based on how the client initially contacted me. I do most of my Legal Strategy Sessions over the phone or Skype.

  • Thank you for this article. It was very timely for me as I am making the switch from the legal field into the Social Media Management field. For the past week, I have been trying to decide if I should offer new clients a “free consultation” with the pitfalls of going this route running through my mind. This article has confirmed what I knew in the back of my mind and has helped me to reach a decision. So…. If you don’t mind, I will be stealing from you (just a little) and offer a Social Media Strategy Session for a fee.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Debbie,

      I do think the free consultation can be a great way to learn about your clientele and test your services, etc. but that doesn’t make it mandatory by any means. :)

      Good luck with your new venture!

  • My experience and conclusion reached are the same as Rachel’s. If people want to meet with you, it’s because they have legal questions and you should get paid for the legal advice you’ll be providing. I have also found paid initial consultations to be an excellent screening device: If someone is not willing to pay for a consultation, then they are not serious about hiring an attorney and getting legal help. I’d rather not work and not get paid, then to work and not get paid. Plus, cynically speaking, why risk malpractice exposure by giving free legal advice?

    To avoid what I call “free-legal-information-central” phone calls, I have also honed by phone screening skills in this regard. As soon as the caller asks a legal question crossing from general information (what’s a trademark registration get me?) to their specific situation (is the trademark I picked available for me to use?), I let them know they are asking for legal advice and I’d be happy to schedule an appointment to address it.

    In my view, the general public has been conditioned to think that all attorneys offer free consultations as a result of advertising by lawyers who use a contingency model in their practices. Although that may be appropriate and best for their practice model, it doesn’t work for all attorneys in all practice areas. Once you inform a potential client why you charge a consultation fee, most of them understand and are willing to pay it. If not, they’re free to find other counsel.

    One last thought…don’t apologize for charging a consultation fee! You’re worth it!

    • Hi Brenda,

      I agree that lawyers shouldn’t feel bad about charging for providing legal advice.

      Someone once told me that you have to teach people how to treat you. I think that’s really applicable in the business context. Other lawyers may conduct themselves in one way but that doesn’t mean we all have to. We simply need to teach our clients how to treat us and how our practice works.

  • From Jay Foonberg:

    My advice on offering free consultation is directed primarily at lawyers without an established practice, especially new lawyers. but applicable to all lawyers.

    The “Free” consultation is simply one way of giving back to the profession and society that gives you the material things you covet..

    I have made huge fees ( yes I said HUGE) when I could find a contingency aspect to the case.
    Those lawyers whose “business” is so busy it prevents them from accepting “free” professional consultations are often also so busy they have no time to listen to clients without cash in advance, even the ones with good cases.

    I tell the potential client:

    “I will give you 20 minutes of my time to help you decide if you need a lawyer or not and approximately what it would cost. I am more concerned about your legal situation than I am concerned about getting a fee from you”. ( This is true) “I will not give you more than 20 minutes and you have no obligation to use me”.
    Those “lawyers” with their “no free consultations”noses in the air miss a lot of good cases and clients lying at their feet, begging to be picked up.
    Often the person is so grateful that they got to talk with a real live lawyer, not an on line questionnaire or a clip board and a para legal, they will love you for life and some come back with good cases and some refer good cases.
    Yes, there are some greedy “clients” who abuse the system and lie to get free legal advice, just as there are some greedy lawyers interested only in money who lie to a client about how much money they will get to get the client.
    Yes, some are an economic waste of time,

    BUT- I feel good when I can help someone, even if only to tell them that I an do nothing for them. They are grateful for someone listening to them and telling them the truth.
    They came to me to see me in my office, taking only 20 minutes of my time and none of my money. I didn’t have to chase around outside my office spending time and money trying to find the people who were looking for me.

    I became a lawyer and after 50 years remain a lawyer to help people, to make a difference in their lives where possible, to make my community and country a better place to live. Along the way, I made a lot of good fees. It’s the old story of the tortoise and the hare.
    I almost feel sorry for those lawyers who live only to make money and to try to die the richest person in the cemetery, looking for the ‘magic bullet” to make them rich, the magic adword, the magic “pitch”, the magic coaching trick,the magic “app” to attain riches beyond greed and avarice.

    I will always advise new lawyers: If you are a lawyer to help people, you will make money. You will get that big fee every few years that buys the new house and pays for the kid’s education and you will enjoy life and your family along the way.
    If you are a lawyer only to make money, you will never be truly happy, because someone else is making more than you. You will ignore family and children in the quest for money and then one day wake up and realize that it is too late.Your spouse and children have left you. You are alone with whatever money that is left. your spouse is happily remarried. Your kids are married and have lost your phone number. But you have your money.

    Just one person’s opinion

    Jay Foonberg

    Jay Foonberg
    Attorney, CPA, CLE Presenter, Author,
    Fellow – American College of Law Practice Management,
    4-Time ABA Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
    How to Start and Build a Law Practice, 5th ed.
    How to Get and Keep Good Clients, 3rd ed.
    ABA Guide to Lawyer Trust Accounts
    How to Draft Bills Clients Rush to Pay, 2nd ed.
    Finding the Right Lawyer
    Getting Paid in Good Times and Bad (Dec. 2010)

    • Jay,

      First let me say I am honored that you read my article and thought it worthy of commenting.

      I like the example you provided about how you conduct your consultations. I think setting ground rules and letting clients know what to expect in a way that fits your practice is necessary. I did not start out doing that but quickly learned that I should have.

      Also, I agree that every client that would like a free consultation is not necessarily a “bad” client. Some of them will be but some of them won’t. I do think it makes a lot of sense to offer free consultations in contingency based practices.

      Lastly, I think a lot of lawyers offer free services through blogging about legal issues relevant to clients, providing document templates and answering Q & A on a website to benefit the general public, possibly in place of offering free consultations.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Thanks, Jay.

      I have been looking for a way to handle free consults and where the dividing line is. You hit it on the head and I will try this going forward. I give away lots of advice to people who really do not need a lawyer or where I cannot help. However, I need to find the line and this may be it.

      Thanks again.

    • For the first few years of private practice, I did not charge a consultation fee. About ten years ago I established a reduced rate initial consultation fee. Since then, the number of initial consultations has been reduced by over half and my gross receipts have increased. The consultation fee saves me the time formerly spent on large numbers of people who have no intention of hiring an attorney and allows me more time to work on cases.

  • Great article! I’ve FB’d it as well…people ask me this question all the time. Your article helps all consultants, not just attorneys!..Thanks for the time you put in and sharing.

  • Thank you, Rachel. I really enjoyed your journey from free to fee consultations. And even though I’m not in law your insights and takeaways are valuable for my business too!

  • My take is that the “free consultation” foisted on the rest of us by the personal injury/contingency lawyers has devalued legal services in the eyes of the public.

    In many countries in Europe it is actually deemed unethical and violation of bar rules to give legal advise for free!!!. They provide pro-bono, only through regimented and limited fashion through arrangements with city halls, and local bars.

    I use the paid consultations as a screening device. If you are not willing to pay $80-100 for a consultation, then can you afford an attorney in the first place??.

    Some would say that the prospective client would go to another lawyer who will give them the free consultation. As the number of lawyers have increased, this situation has gotten worse and literally a race towards the bottom.

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