Are Free Consultations For You?
People love to get things for free. In fact, most businesses find ways to give out freebies to drive business. As a lawyer, you can do the same thing by offering a free consultation. During the consultation, you will spend time with a potential client to answer questions and offer advice.
Type of Case
As you know, not everything you do has the same fee structure. It depends on the kind of case. Family law and litigation tend to be charged at an hourly rate. Wills and bankruptcy fees are often flat fees. Some cases, such as personal injury, workers compensation, and disability are handled with a contingency fee. Of these, which fee style works best with a free consultation?
Since contingency fees are based on money that is recovered, you cannot charge a consultation fee. Instead, your initial consultation is where you determine the merits of the case and whether you and the potential client wish to work together. Similarly, you can't charge a consultation fee for flat rate services because the consultation is part of the information gathering needed to do the job.
Hourly rated cases, on the other hand, do lend themselves to a free consultation. Yes, you can charge for the initial consultation, but should you? There are advantages and disadvantages to doing so. Let's look at a few.
Three Advantages of Free Consultations
- Favorable Public Opinion: Since we know that the public is looking for a bargain, offering a free consultation is a good way to earn a favorable public opinion. When paired with satisfaction as the result, you will get great word of mouth advertising, leading to an increased number of clients.
- Increased Client-Base: If you are trying to increase your client base, offering a free consultation will do the trick. People unsure of where to turn will often turn to the free consultation since they have nothing to lose.
- Pro Bono Work: Most state bars ask their members to offer some reduced-fee or free work every year. Offering free consultations may allow you to fulfill this requirement.
Be sure to advertise your free consultations on television, radio, newspaper, and the Internet to see the best results. Keep in mind that if you offer free consultations and advertise, you may be legally required to disclose this even if the free consultation was not the purpose of the ad.
3 Disadvantages of Free Consultations
- Time Lost: Some potential clients that come in for a free consultation are only shopping around, looking for the least expensive legal advice. Even if you answer all their questions and help them to the best of your ability, they may still choose not to sign with you. If they leave without signing a representation agreement or paying a retainer fee, they are not very likely to become your client. In this case, the time you spent with them is lost.
- Giving Away Expertise: Lawyers are selling their opinions and expertise to potential clients. When offering a free consultation, they are giving away this commodity with no reimbursement.
- Wrong Kinds of Clients: When you offer free consultations, just about anyone can walk through your door. Sometimes, the people that want you to be their lawyer are not the type of clients you want. Or the case they are wanting you to handle is not within your legal expertise. Either way, taking consultations with the "wrong kind of clients" can end up very time consuming and a waste of time and resources.
It is true that lawyers are in a field that requires them to give to society. On the other hand, lawyers do need to make money. So, determining whether free consultations make sense for you and your firm is a decision that only you can make.
However, whether you choose to offer free consultations or not, keep in mind Rule 1.18(b) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct:
Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has had discussions with a prospective client shall not use or reveal information learned in the consultation, except as Rule 1.9 would permit with respect to information of a former client.
In other words, free or paid, whatever is discussed between you and the potential client is confidential. If the consultation does not result in obtaining the client, be sure you clarify this by having them sign a non-engagement letter. Likewise, if they are interested in becoming a client, obtain an engagement letter and a fee agreement before they leave your office.