It seems like a yes or no question, but there may be as many answers to that question as there are law firms. If you do charge for the consultation, you may have to deal with a client who expects the consultation for free. But if you don’t charge for a consultation, aren’t you giving away the milk and hoping they’ll buy the cow?
The bottom line of practicing law is this: it’s a business. You have to charge for your services, or you won’t be in business for long. Why is the initial consultation any different?
It’s not. If you aren’t charging for the time you spend in client consultations, you will have to make up that time somewhere else in your practice. If the client retains you, you can work it into your fee by charging a slightly higher rate. But if they don’t hire you, you still have to get paid. So free consultations end up costing all of your clients in the form of slightly higher fees.
If you practice in an area of law where you bill on contingency, of course, you can’t really charge for the intake process. You need to assess whether the potential client has a claim you can litigate, and whether there is enough harm there for both you and the client to get paid out of their damages. So that kind of matter really lends itself to the free consultation.
Same if your practice uses case managers or paralegals to conduct the initial interview. The potential client isn’t getting an hour of attorney’s time or advice, and you are really just assessing the case. That works well for some PI, family lawyers and bankruptcy attorneys.
For other areas of law, like most family law, business transactions, tax law, or intellectual property, the process is more collaborative right from the start. Those lawyers jump in feet first and start giving advice pretty early in the relationship. For that reason, those lawyers should charge for their consultations. Even if the lawyer offers to apply the consultation fee to future services if the potential client retains their law firm within a week or so, they are essentially offering a discount, not a freebie.
I know that I give a lot of value to my prospective clients in that initial consultation, and I am up front that I charge for it. We discuss a lot more than whether they have a case: we analyze their business owner’s current situation, where they want to go, and what their priorities are. Along the way, they get a lot of my time, attention and advice about what they should be doing. That’s not something I can afford to do for free.
Moreover, I think my clients should expect to pay for a consultation. They pay for any other professional consultation – from the dentist to the doctor to the plumber – and they can pay for mine too. I represent small businesses, and they don’t give away their goods or services for free. Whether they are a software company or a handmade soap manufacturer, they expect to get paid for what they do.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, I have found that potential clients don’t value what we give away. If I give a free consultation, the potential client is actually less likely to hire my firm to do their work. Maybe they were just kicking the tires and not serious about hiring. Maybe they just wanted free legal advice before using LegalZoom to do the work themselves. Maybe they are going to hire someone else but just wanted a second opinion. My firm uses the charge for the initial consultation to weed out the ones who are never going to pay for my services anyway.
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®.
6 comments on “Should You Charge for Consultations?”
Couldn’t agree with you more. I always charge for the inital consultation. Helps me weed out the time-wasters.
I charge for consults and I do mostly contingency work — I tell people up front that there is a charge to meet with me and discuss their problem and that, if they have a case and they hire me, it will go into the final settlement, but that if not, the consult costs $X which is due when we meet. This has the happy effect of discouraging the tire kickers (who never want to put money down) and helps me gauge how serious the prospect actually is. A few have asked me about it and I say “I’m like a doctor — when you go to a doctor, the doc diagnoses your complaints and tells you what options you have for addressing them and the pros and cons of each. The worst thing would be if the doctor only got to charge if there was treatment — then everyone would get LOTS of unnecessary treatment.”
The more I insist on charging for consults, the fewer flakey clients I have, the better my practice, and the more time I have to do better work for everyone. Unless I’m doing an expressly intentional pro bono thing, charging people for consults is definitely the way to go.
I fully agree with you.
At our Firm, we always charge for the initial consultation.
We deal it as Early Case Assessment (ECA).
In 40 years I never charged for a first consultation. Why spend money advertising to turn people off. I am certain that if I had charged for the first hour I would have missed out on many good cases and clients. I say no when a corporate client offers to pay. I am looking for a relationship with my clients, not a quick buck. I give away an hour to a great many clients and companies that never hire me. I want them to come away from the hour with a sense that I know what I am doing, act professionally and that I can help them. I volunteer on start-up websites and I did pro bono work throughout my career. You are not a doctor; you are a lawyer in a competitive marketplace,
I do not typically do any contingency fee work. So, like some of the other commentors, I charge for an initial consult. I do credit the consultation fee to the first bill if the client retains me, and informing potential clients of this generally relieves any “turn off” to a client who is seriously looking for legal representation. We advise potential clients that in addition to the time at the consultation meeting, the fee covers time in reviewing submitted documents and preparing for the consultation meeting with any initial statute or case law review. We rarely get complaints about the fee. Often times, if the potential client’s problem can be solved with (or at least progressed a decent bit) with a letter or a form submission, I will then draft the letter or submit the form as part of the consultation fee. If it is such a common type of case that doesn’t really need a “consult” then we will typically just let the client know our procedures and fees, and let the client decide if they want to retain us.
If the potential client is a referral from a colleague or another client we usually waive the consultation fee.
I wrote this post awhile ago and so I thought I would also share. It appears, as Suzanne says, there are as many ways to approach this as there are lawyers out there! http://solopracticeuniversity.com/2012/04/16/should-you-charge-for-an-initial-consult/
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