To offer the free consultation or not: two sides of the client intake coin

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delve into getting to know your potential client

If you are in private practice, either as a solo practitioner or at a firm, at some point you will need to do business development to bring in new work from a new or existing client.  When the occasion arises, from a cold call, a referral, or follow-up from a recent meeting, are you willing to offer a free consultation to see if you can help serve the legal needs of this potential client (PC)?

Professionals in many industries provide free consultations, give-aways, and freemium products to get a sense of whether they can met a PC’s needs.  You can likely get in a hair stylist’s chair for a consult regarding your cut and color before booking a first appointment, you can have an exploratory session with a coach, and a web design company may be tripping over itself to respond to your RFP at no cost to you.  So when an individual or company has a legal question, they may also expect to be able to consult with an attorney (or multiple attorneys or firms) to find the right fit for their needs.

My Practice

Personally, in my practice I always offer small business owners and entrepreneurs a free consultation.  I figure that even if they do not decide to work with me, there is still a high likelihood that if I impress them they may still pass my name on to others.  Since my niche area of practice lends itself to working directly with small business owners, I find that many have never worked with an attorney before, and the consultation proves helpful for us both to decide whether working together makes sense.

Last week I received calls from 7 PCs who had been referred to me from various trusted referral sources.  As I found myself explaining how I like to initially work with PCs, I started to think about my process, and how I utilize free consultation sessions in my intake and screening process.  When I receive a call or email from a referral or cold call, I immediately get conflict information and run it in my firm’s conflict of interest system before getting any substantive information.  Once that checks out, I call or email back and try to ask pointed questions to determine whether the PC’s questions a) are legal related, b) are within my area of practice or that of one of my colleague’s, and c) lead me to believe they are actually looking to hire an attorney (and not just get free legal advice).

If all checks out, I let them know that I always offer an initial consultation at no charge, and that they can send me business plan materials, or specific questions in advance of our meeting for me to be prepared.

In the meeting, my goal is to explain my background, learn about their business, issue spot legal needs they might face in the short-term and long-term, and get a sense of how savvy they are.

Depending on the level of experience of the PC I also do a lot of education in this consultation.  I may delve into Trademark 101, an overview of intellectual property, or what the “LL” in an LLC means.  

At the end of the meeting I try to wrap up by discussing estimates of legal fees for services we have discussed, what my hourly rate is, etc.  I then ask if they want to formally become a client of my firm, and if they say yes, explain the letter of representation, what fees will be needed up front, and timelines for items they need taken care of.   In this way, the consultation serves very well for me as an open dialogue in which I can usually determine whether the PC will become a new client.  

Not all consultations go well, some are clearly a means of fishing for free advice, and some are with businesses that just can’t afford legal services.  I would say that I have a pretty high rate of free consults that turn into client relationships.  I have put together a list of pros and cons of offering the initial consultation at no charge.  Of course, some lawyers do not offer any time for free, and some areas of practice support this better than others.

The Pros

  • First and foremost, I truly enjoy hearing about business goals and hurdles, and doing some issue spotting.  It keeps me on my feet, feeds my need to connect with people, and usually is pretty fun.
  • Doing intake in person offers me a great opportunity to practice how I explain complex legal issues in regular language.
  • Offering a free consultation sets me apart from other practitioners in my area, and makes me more accessible to my target audience of small business owners.
  • It makes me user-friendly as a referral.  Referral sources are very comfortable sending a PC my way, knowing my consultation has value for their client or contact.
  • It expands my network exponentially.
  • It has taught me a valuable lesson: legal training makes you an expert compared to the laymen, but it is OK to know that there is no simple or quick answer.  Showing your ability to identify an issue, and let a PC know that additional research will be needed is just as valuable as having an answer on the tip of your tongue.

The Cons

  • It can take up a lot of (non-billable) time.  Especially if you have no system for streamlining the process (I am working on this).
  • Without proper parameters, I can feel taken advantage of.
  • I need to be cautious to not dispense substantive legal advice to PCs that are not yet clients of my firm.
  • Particularly needy PCs can drag an initial consult into a few follow-up questions, and snowball into a lot of handholding.  Knowing my personal limits is important (and may vary from PC to PC).
  • PCs may interpret a free consultation to mean lots of different things.  Clearly stated expectations can help prevent you from experiencing these examples of what a free consultation is not.

TIPS for implementing a successful intake and consultation process

  • You need to respect your time enough to be selective and screen PCs – this may require a blunt question on a phone call before the consultation.  “Are you really in a position to hire an attorney, or could I point you in the direction of other resources that might be more appropriate to your budget or needs?”
  • Be clear about a time-frame for the consultation, communicate that, and stick to it.
  • If mid- consultation, it becomes clear the PC wants to hire you, and that you are moving from exploration to substantive advice, let them know, and transition into billable mode.
  • KISS – Keep It Stupid Simple.  What I mean is, create a system, ideally with help from your support staff.  Maybe blocking out certain times of certain days as your consultation times help you plan your week.  Maybe you can create a set of template emails you can tailor for initial or follow-up correspondence.  Maybe there is a questionnaire you can bring into the consultation with you, to give to the PC if they decide to hire you, that gathers all the information you need to open their case administratively.  Whatever makes it easier for you, create structure and stick to it.
  • Leverage the meeting.  Even if a PC makes it clear they cannot afford your services, or are not ready to hire you, if there was a good vibe, it is perfectly acceptable to ask if you can give them some of your cards, to share with others they know that might benefit from a consultation.
  • Keep track of your time, and limit yourself to a number of consultations each week that works for you.  You can’t be in these meetings all day – especially since hopefully most of them lead directly to work for you to do.
I welcome your feedback and thoughts as to how you treat initial consultations.  Are they at no charge or billable?  Are they 1-hour, or less?  Perhaps you have transitioned from free consultations to paid consultations or vice versa.  I welcome your thoughts/tips.

 

 

 

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