Guest Column: How to Provide an Effective Free Legal Consultation

Feb 4, 2015 by William D. Hartsock, Esq

Legal ConsultationFor attorneys, one of the most important interactions you will have with a new prospective client is the free consultation. It is not correct to say that this is actually your first interaction with the client, because obviously the client has already learned about you, whether through some form of advertising or referral, and they have chosen to reach out to you to discuss their situation. This is when the free consultation takes place, and properly conducting one is one of the most important skills you can develop.

Knowing how to provide an effective free consultation is an art that will help you sign on good clients and avoid the bad ones. It can have a significant impact on the efficient use of your time. It can help you maximize your potential income. But, most importantly, this is the meeting where client expectations are set. And your clients’ expectations going into a case will have an enormous impact on their levels of stress and satisfaction—with implications that will resonate through your practice.

This article will focus on five issues: How to advertise a free consultation offer, the ethics of approaching a free consultation (perhaps the most important of the five), red flags to watch out for when interviewing with new clients, something that is not a red flag but that you must be prepared for, and how to transition from a free consultation to billable hours.

The first key to providing an effective free consultation lies in how you advertise it. Most people have a keen sense of “you get what you pay for,” and free consultation offers can actually deter higher quality clients if they are presented in a cheesy manner. A free consultation is ubiquitous among law practices. More educated and higher quality clients will know this. By strongly pushing a free consultation, you can end up bringing in a lot of people that are only looking for free advice. That is ok. There is nothing wrong with giving some free advice. However, you have to be able to quickly evaluate and understand whether you are really talking to a potential client or just donating your time. This is also not to say that advertising a free consultation is bad. It is just that if offering something for free comes across as the strongest value proposition in your marketing, you shouldn’t be surprised when the more sophisticated and higher value clients do not call.

Once the client has called or shown up to your office, the most important thing you can do is demonstrate to the client that you are truthful and honest; you need to give them the good, the bad and the ugly in the initial conference. Far too many attorneys use the free consultation as a sales opportunity and, for a lawyer, this is absolutely the wrong way to approach a client; it’s simply not a good attorney practice. If you give them a sales pitch, you run the risk of developing a reputation as a “shyster” lawyer. Reputations are built upon client satisfaction, giving honest and appropriate legal advice, and your skill at representing your client’s best interest. Your reputation is your most valuable asset and you must protect it at all costs. The better your reputation for protecting the interests of your clients, the more money you can demand for your services. So, always do what is best for the client, even if it seemingly isn’t in your best interest in the short term. Sometimes, you need to walk away from clients when you can’t help them.

Now to identify some of the red flags to watch out for when interviewing clients. If you are the third, fourth or fifth attorney on the same case, walk. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. There is something seriously wrong here and taking the time to find out what it is will only distract you from getting better cases.

If the client is mad at the previous attorney that represented them, walk. There are times when the first attorney just did a really, really bad job. That does happen. But it happens maybe 15 to 20 percent of the time. The remainder of the time, it is a case of the client being unrealistic. Maybe the first attorney didn't give them the information they needed to set realistic expectations and the client presumed that he or she was about to win the lottery; their first attorney sold them something rather than telling them the truth to begin with.

If the case interests you, however, you can call the previous lawyer, and because they no longer work for the client, there is nothing wrong with asking them some questions. You cannot provide them any new information, but you can ask them a few questions and make a better determination of whether you want to take the case or not.

If the client is far more emotional than they should be, given the facts and circumstances, that is another red flag. There are certainly emotions evolved in almost every legal case. However, if the client is beyond the reasonable emotional threshold, you could be dealing with an unstable person and getting involved with circumstances that are well beyond your control. So, tread lightly.

Another red flag is the client who wants to control the case. Unfortunately, with so many legal dramas on television, more and more clients have deeply ingrained preconceived notions that do not necessarily line up with legal reality. When the client starts directing the case in a manner that isn't aligned with your best judgment—something wicked this way comes. You have to control the client and their expectations. The client has to work with you to give you the information, documents and testimony you need, and to take the case in the direction that you believe is in their best interest and which gives you the best chance of winning.

Another red flag is if the client is unable to put money into the attorney-client retainer equal to at least 25 percent of the expected cost of the engagement. If this is the case, they really don't have an interest in having you represent them. What they really want is free legal advice. They are likely planning to do it themselves. Which is ok. But, make sure that you instruct them explicitly that you don't represent them. If they are looking around, that's fine, just let them know then and there that you do not represent them; if they come back and put money into the retainer attorney-client trust account, that is when the legal representation will begin. If the client is unwilling to commit that money, you don't want to them to leave for the day thinking, even unreasonably, that you are representing them.

Here’s something that may seem like a red flag, but in actuality isn’t: the client who wants to negotiate your fee. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and when you are just starting your practice, you should expect it. But once you've been at it for a few years and have accumulated enough experience and more than a few gray hairs, you will have the confidence to hold firm on your fee, assured that someone is going to walk through the door right after them and be willing to pay the full rate.

The negotiation of fees is an issue that is directly tied to experience and reputation. When you are starting out, you have to understand how far you can negotiate and remain profitable. A less experienced lawyer is not likely to get cases with the margin that a very experienced lawyer can get. You have to know the financial structure of your practice to determine how flexible you can be with your fees while remaining profitable.

Once you feel that you have developed an understanding of the case, evaluated the client’s personality and have a good mental outline of the proper path to proceed with the case, now it’s the time to transition a client from a free consultation to billable hours. Follow these steps:

  1. Provide a strong and concise summary of the case. You should be bullet-pointing notes during the consultation, prioritizing them and using them to inform this step. This shows the client that you have listened to them and that you understand their situation. Psychologically, it prepares them to trust you.
  2. Reinforce your credentials and experience in similar matters. This is where you bring a client’s attention to your expertise. You may not like tooting your own horn, but the client is just meeting you and a little of this will help them feel confident that they are in capable hands.
  3. Present their options. This is where you demonstrate a high-level overview of your extensive knowledge in this area of law. If there are multiple options, you’ll want to discuss the factors that would influence the decision to pursue one direction over the other(s).
  4. Make a recommendation regarding how to proceed. Remember, this step is also an evaluation of the client. If they become argumentative, defensive or lead you to believe that they want to run the show, remember our discussion about red flags. What you are looking for is a client that agrees with your assessment and seems relieved to be working with a professional.
  5. Present your fees and have the client sign your retainer agreement and give you a check. Remember, if the client is not willing to go through with this last step, you must make it very clear that you are not yet representing them before they leave.

As a successful and experienced San Diego Tax Attorney who is sought out by high-quality clients, I can tell you that mastering the art of providing an effective free consultation will truly set you on the path for success in your career. Best of luck!



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