Should I Charge for Consultations?

It depends.

Don’t we lawyers LOVE that answer?  But seriously, it really does depend.  In full disclosure, I do charge for consultations.  I didn’t at first.  I do now.  Yes, people pay.  Yes, I’ve lost clients who expect a free consultation.  No, I don’t lose sleep over those clients.  Yes, those clients who do pay make it well worth it.

This is yet another question that you need to consider from your client’s perspective.  If clients expect a free consultation because every other lawyer in your practice area offers them, then you probably should too.  That being said, I’ll delve further into other considerations.

First, it’s just a fact of life that someone is more invested in something they’ve paid for than something they got for free.  If you’ve ever RSVP’d to a seminar, you’re far more likely to show up if you’ve paid for it.  No-shows are one of the most irritating realities of practice but they diminish significantly with paid consultations.  Even if you decide not to charge for an initial consultation, it may be worth exploring asking for a credit card number to charge for no-shows.  Kind of like a swanky restaurant.  You don’t show, you get charged.  I’d be interested in hearing thoughts on this from you.

Second, if you took any law practice management courses in law school, or paid attention in Professional Responsibility, then you know that we aren’t technically supposed to give legal advice until we have formally accepted the representation, which by definition comes AFTER the initial consultation.  As I explained in an article on my firm’s website, the purpose of the initial consultation is for the lawyer to determine whether any conflicts preclude her from taking on the client and for both the client and the lawyer to decide whether they even want to work together.  Ideally, the initial consultation gives the lawyer an opportunity to somehow prove to the client that she is the lawyer for the job…without dispensing any actual advice.  It’s an art form.

Having said that, I can’t help but give legal advice at an initial consultation.  I have a hard time sitting there like the cat who ate the canary, refusing to provide any answers to the client who clearly is seeking some.  For the first two years of my practice, I offered free consultations.  One day I decided to calculate how many people actually hired me after the first meeting.  My numbers were anything but impressive.  I realized that I was basically teaching them how to handle things themselves and not even charging for the coaching!

Now, I charge my hourly rate for an initial hour-long consultation…but I apply that fee to the client’s first invoice if they retain me within 60 days of the consultation.  Let’s break that down.

I charge my hourly rate.  Even though I charge flat fees for everything and basically don’t have an hourly rate, I have set one anyway and charge that for consultations.  Clients have really no idea how to assess whether a lawyer is any good aside from her hourly rate, which we all know is a piss-poor barometer for measuring skills and quality of service.  So I’ve done some research, asked around, and have set my rate slightly higher than some firms but significantly lower than big firms.

An initial hour-long consultation.  Nevada’s lawyer referral service requires us to give 15-minute long consultations.  I can’t even get a client’s contact information in 15 minutes.  Here’s what you really want to accomplish in an initial meeting:

  1. Get the client’s contact information.
  2. Allow the client to tell his story.
  3. Find out what the client wants to achieve by hiring you.
  4. Explain why you are the right lawyer for the job.
  5. Explain how you work and what your fees are.
  6. Answer any questions for the client.
  7. Explain what happens next if the client decides to hire you.

With practice, you can get through all that information in an hour and the client feels like he’s been heard, you have an opportunity to prove your mettle, and the client walks away with the feeling that he made the right decision in scheduling the consultation.

Apply the fee to the first invoice.  This is how I overcome the “other lawyers give free consultations” objection.  I have enough paying clients that I no longer have the luxury of spending an hour with someone for free, unless it’s intentional pro bono work.  Most clients feel that this is a fair arrangement.  They get a free consultation if they move forward.  If they don’t, then they’ve walked away with some information and may hire me down the road for something else.  (That actually happens more often than you’d think.)

…if the client hires within 60 days.  I added this for two reasons.  First, it lights a small fire under clients who are slow to make decisions.  Those who are slow don’t get the benefit of the free consultation and maybe, just maybe, they crank up their responsiveness if they hire me. Second, it gives me a point at which I can consider the fee earned, regardless of whether I’ve dispensed legal advice in the first meeting.

I have a Consultation Fee Agreement that I send clients with a credit card form and an explanation of what to expect from an initial consultation.  It helps with managing client expectations.

As a parting thought, having a standing policy of charging for consultations also gives you the room to waive that fee for “friends, family, referrals, etc.”  I’m not big into lying to clients (or anyone for that matter) so I’d prefer to have an actual policy and be able to say, honestly “I normally charge for consultations, but because So-and-So is such a good friend, I’ll waive the fee for you.”  Then the client feels special, So-and-So looks like a hero, and everyone wins.  Except you, if you don’t actually land the client.  🙂