Should You Charge For An Initial Consult?

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 .

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3 comments on “Should You Charge For An Initial Consult?

  • I can think at least two points to make in regard to charging for initial consults.

    First, I think it greatly depends on how you obtain clients. If you have a marketed or advertised practice, it will always be harder to collect such fees. You need to offer the potential client a benefit to even come in to your office. FREE tends to be the operative word. This is followed by NO OBLIGATION. When you market you are not likely to advertise that you charge for such things. It would be wrong to spring it on someone unsuspectingly at the initial consult itself. Therefore, you are not likely to do it.

    In a referral based practice, however, a reasonable charge for the initial consult is not necessarily out of the question. The main issue is that you do not need to sell yourself to a potential client as much. The client comes referred. Also, the client is already aware of the likely outcome of the visit — to retain a lawyer for a particular service. This means the client is more comfortable with you and your office coming in, and the client knows it is coming in for the specific, applicable service. The pre-qualification of the client is about complete already. This is not so true in a marketed or advertised practice.

    Second, the tighter the niche in which you practice will likely allow for such a charge. Broader practice areas, and especially broader consumer-based practice areas, simply do not lend themselves to such a fee. The niche itself helps pre-qualify the client. They are, for example, coming into your office due to tree problem they are having their neighbors. They are coming in because they are closing on a new airplane and they want to know the title is good for their large investment. The city is denying their food truck a permit. There Mom passed away, left a will, and they need to transfer title to property. That initial consult does not so much qualify the person, as it is extremely substantive.

  • I think you have to think about and define the purpose of the consultation. I offer a free initial consultation, but the purpose is to determine whenther the client’s matter is something I can handle, and also to see if there is fit between me and the client. It is usually not a long process where I offer free advice, although I sometimes will, but rather a getting to know type of thing.

    I do this on the phone because it is easier to cut it off if it starts to get to detailed or specific or if I get the feeling that the client is picking my brain and then going to go somewhere else.

    I’m now narrowing my practice to Estate Planning and Business Law, and for the estate stuff I do charge for the Initial Estate Planning meeting, but I credit the cost against the plan if they hire me. I require the potential client to fill out a detailed questionnaire, so if they take the time to do that, and they expect to pay for the initial meeting, it sets the right tone and expectations for the relationship.

    The other advantage of charging for the initial consult is it helps weed out negative clients, i.e., people who will eventually stop paying and expect you to work for free. I can see why new lawyers might be tempted not to charge for an inital consult, but I think that would be a mistake.

    I do agree with Chuck’s comment that if you are heavily marketing your practice to the consumer, you will probably need to offer at least something for free without obligation. The key is to make it as short and sweet as possible.

    Susan is right that there is no right answer to this question, and it really depends where you are in your legal career.

  • Thank you for a concise and apt discussion of this issue. Twelve years ago, I tried solo practice for 4 years, after 15 providing free legal services to indigents. I was very busy, but all the poor people in this yeti state region thought of me still as their lawyer, and I had to seek work with the county. Still my reputation remained as the people’s advocate, but at least I got a paycheck and health care. Now I have been there 11 years and they find me expensive with my health costs expanding and my salary increases over the decade, and so the environment odds becoming more hostile. My work load has been increased by over 300 per cent. I have been out sick, hospitalized, etc. someone sent me your contact,I think add a hint that I should go out on my own again. So I have been considering it, but the olds experience of having trouble charging for my time has haunted my thoughts. I like this article today because it puts in concise perspective the considerations. Thank you.

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