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Bar News - October 14, 2011

Consultations: Free or Fee?


Recently, I read an entertaining article by fellow solo attorney, Pauline Villanueva, about what a free consultation is not. It was basically a list that was curated among attorneys on Twitter. Feedback included:
  • "Free consultation" doesnít mean spending three hours with you while you tell me your life story.
  • "Free consultation" does not mean Iím going to prep you for a hearing taking place tomorrow.
  • "Free consultation" does not mean Iím adopting you or taking you to Walgreenís at midnight to buy a pregnancy test.
Obviously, attorneys have had some bad experiences with the free consultation. Yet, some of the most respected solo practice authorities, such as Jay Foonberg, highly recommend that solos offer free consultations. Others say solos should never offer free consultations. Still others say it depends. To further murk up the waters, Iíll share my experiences with (and without) the free consultation offer.

My Free Consultation Experience

I started out offering free 30-minute consultations in my Gen Y entrepreneur practice (against the advice of my entrepreneur husband). I figured it would be a good way for clients to get to know me and to learn how I could be of service to them and their businesses. I did a lot of free consultations. A lot! Some of them even turned into one-hour consultations (I know, I know . . . rookie mistake!).

The biggest problem with this time-consuming service is that while I had some great conversations with some very interesting entrepreneurs, very few of these potential clients actually became clients. In fact, a pattern developed where I specifically felt that these entrepreneurs had no intention of working with me in any capacity, they simply wanted free legal advice. Who could blame them? However, I am not in the business of giving free legal advice. I do pro bono work with 100 Urban Entrepreneurs and one or two other organizations, but the free consultation was not meant to be pro bono work. It was meant to be a gateway to obtaining paying clients.

One obvious warning sign is when the prospective client keeps mentioning their financial troubles or downright says that they canít afford an attorney. Additionally, lots of questions about pricing at the very beginning of the consult is probably a good sign of a tire kicker and not someone who is likely to become a (good) client. One particularly bad consult that left me feeling used was a potential client who didnít want to have a conversation but wanted me to answer as many of her rapid fire questions as she could get answered in the time allotted. At that point I decided to stop offering free consults. It was clear that the free consultation was not serving its purpose.

My Paid Consultation Experience

So I took the bold step of removing all traces of the free consultation offer from my website and other marketing materials, replaced it with the "Legal Strategy Session" and said a prayer. My Legal Strategy Session is a one-hour consultation where I answer questions, provide some initial legal advice and potential clients have the opportunity to get to know me. I charge $250 for this service. If the client signs up for one of my monthly packages or ongoing retainer services (not simply hire me to draft a contract), I will credit the $250 against the cost of the package.

The response to this change was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Needless to say, I have now done a lot of paid consultations. I realized that, for me, this was an unbundling error. I did not offer a service where clients could obtain unbundled legal advice. Once I did, my clients showed me that this is something they really wanted. Additionally, my clientele is filled with both committed and uncommitted entrepreneurs. One way to tell whoís who is to ask questions about what type of investments theyíve already made in their business such as what their startup costs have been and whether they have hired other professionals such as an accountant. The paid consultation deters those entrepreneurs that have not made a commitment to their business (and therefore are not willing to invest their money in their business) from contacting me and thatís okay. In fact, its perfect. Every entrepreneur canít be my ideal client and likewise, I am not the ideal lawyer for every entrepreneur.

Thoughts on the Transition

I will note that during the transition from free to paid consultation, I did have a couple of potential clients contact me via email to request a free consultation because they had previously seen it advertised on my website. I responded to their inquiries by informing them that I now offer a paid consultation and explained how it worked and what type of value they could expect. None of them responded.

Additionally, there is still that dilemma of handling potential clients who would never hire a professional without having some interaction with them first. An important part of the hiring decision for potential clients is whether they like you. And how can those potential clients know if they like you without having the opportunity to talk with you? I address this problem by having an online presence. I blog, I write articles for various websites, I speak at webinars and seminars and I chat with folks on Twitter and Facebook. All of these activities allow potential clients to get to know me and my personality. Additionally, I answer my phone and respond to emails. If a potential client calls, I spend 10 minutes or less on the phone with them, giving them the opportunity to get a feel for whether or not they like me. To date, every potential client that Iíve had a brief conversation with over the phone has become a client.

So Which Is It? Free or Fee?

I agree with the "it depends" crowd. There are practice areas where it makes a lot of sense to offer free consultations, such as contingency fee personal injury cases. However, whether you offer a free or paid consultation should be based on a business model that works for you AND your bottom line. How do you know what works for you and your bottom line? You test. And guess what works as a great way to test your service offerings, your presentation, different sales pitches, etc.? You guessed it Ė the free consultation.

My experience offering free consultations was very valuable. It enabled me to identify the characteristics of my ideal clients (and my not-so-ideal clients) as well as a service they wanted that I wasnít previously offering. While I spent a lot of time on this "test," I am currently reaping the benefits.

So, now I ask you Ė Free or Fee?

Rachel Rodgers authors the popular monthly column, ĎAdventures of a Gen Y Solo Practitionerí for Solo Practice University. This article is reprinted with permission. See for more information.

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