On Free Consultations

Jamison KoehlerLaw Marketing/Networking

In an entry today called “Don’t Blame Clients For What Lawyers Do,” Scott Greenfield writes of the “huge rift” within the legal profession “between those desperately seeking business and those desperately seeking to provide clients with excellent representation.”  As an example of the lawyers on the “seeking business” side of the divide, he cites lawyers who offer free consultations to potential clients in search of a lawyer.

“We offer free consultations,” Greenfield writes, “which clients interpret as a free hour of a lawyer’s time to provide free legal advice which they can take away and use.”  He himself does not offer free consultations.  In fact, he often vets clients before making an appointment with them and will turn down appointment requests when there is no possibility he will take the case.

“Callers are shocked that they can’t have an appointment; they have been taught to believe they are entitled to one.”  The fault for these dashed expectations lies not with the clients but with the “business-seeking” lawyers.  By doing anything to bring in the business, these lawyers are creating unrealistic expectations on behalf of potential clients, expectations that the rest of the legal profession needs to deal with.

I have to respectfully disagree with Greenfield on both counts.  (In fairness, while I have tried to paraphrase Greenfield’s argument to the best of my ability, I am sure I did not do it justice.  You should read his entry for yourself.)

First of all, I do not believe that seeking business and seeking to provide quality legal representation are mutually exclusive. I think you can do both. Greenfield is an established and well-respected trial lawyer with almost 30 years of experience. For all I know, he may not have to lift a finger to bring in new clients.

But not all lawyers have this luxury. The rest of us need to market to survive. We need to network. We need to advertise. And while these marketing efforts do take time away from actually doing the legal work, they do not preclude the quality of representation Greenfield calls for.  Newer lawyers also know that, even apart from our ethical obligations, any law firm that does NOT provide quality representation will not survive long.  There are thus both ethical and practical reasons to provide this level of representation.

This leads to my second point, on free consultations.  I offer free consultations to potential clients.  So do many of my colleagues.  I know this from speaking with other lawyers and from visiting their websites.  I also know what I read on the ABA listserv.

My consultations are usually done over the telephone. Sometimes I am the first and only lawyer the client calls.  Other times I am one of many. I get a sense of the case. The potential client and I both get a sense of each other. The cases are usually interesting to me, and I always learn a little something.

The potential client will sometimes say thanks but no thanks. Sometimes the client will call back after talking with other lawyers. Other times the client will decide on the spot to hire me. In that case, we arrange to get together in person to sign the engagement letter and get started on the case.

Yes, some people can abuse the free consultation.  I once spent an extraordinary amount of time with one woman over the course of several phone calls, only to have her thank me for my time but tell me that her husband – who “makes this type of decision for us” – had already hired someone else.

But, based on my experience, this type of situation is the exception. Most potential clients are looking for the right lawyer to represent them on an issue that could affect them for the rest of their lives, not free-loaders seeking free legal advice. I have no problem with potential clients who shop around until they find this lawyer. In fact, unless they already have a lawyer or have a recommendation from someone they absolutely trust, they would be foolish NOT to shop around.

There are also different lawyers for different people. There needs to be the right fit between lawyer and client.  Some clients like me; other don’t. What is wrong with checking around with different lawyers until the client finds that fit?  And, assuming a client is working within a budget, the client can’t get a sense of different lawyers if each one is charging a consultation fee.