A New Reason To Limit Free Consultations

I’ve long been a fan of free consultations for a couple of reasons. First, given the importance of the attorney-client relationship, it never made sense to put up obstacles  to clients seeking to vet different attorneys by forcing them to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for each meeting. Second, for some practices – like personal injury – free consults are so widely entrenched that lawyers may suffer a competitive disadvantage if they don’t offer them. Third, although free consultations date back to when time began, they’re also consistent with the 21st Century concept of Freemium where you give away some milk in hopes that it will persuade takers to buy the cow. (As it turns out, only between one and three percent will ). Finally, for lawyers starting out, free consults can be a learning experience.

Still, it’s articles like this one that may make you want to reconsider those free consultations. The piece, entitled How to Find Free Legal Advice for Your Business by Steve Gillman encourages businesses to seek out small lawyers who offer free consultations as a way to find free advice:

Finally, there are probably some lawyers near you who offer a free initial consultation of 30 minutes or more. That may not be enough to resolve your matter, but you’ll at least have a better idea how to proceed. Prepare for your initial consultation thoroughly, so you can get to the point quickly and get as much out of the meeting as possible.

Gillman even instructs readers on how to find firms that offer free legal advice by either calling and asking or simply Googling “lawyer free consultation” and the name of your city. 

To add insult to injury, Gillman offers other suggestions for finding free legal advice – including Rocket Lawyer, Avvo Advisor and Legal Zoom. But those services aren’t exactly free: Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom each charge a membership fee of twenty or thirty bucks a month to get feedback on contracts, while Avvo charges $39 a pop for a short consult with a lawyer. So while these middleman services are actually collecting money for “free legal advice,” the real lawyers are the only ones giving it away for nothing.

Gillman’s article also suggests that small businesses are justified in looking for – and taking – legal services for free given lawyers’ high billing rates. Yet the rates that Gillman cites – an average of $536/hour for partners and $370/hour for associates are based on large firm data and don’t accurately reflect the billing rates charge even by many seasoned solos.

But here’s what really irks me about this article. Small Business Trends is a highly trafficked and well-respected small business blog. By providing this information, it creates an expectation that legal advice can be had for free and puts lawyers who charge for consolations on the defensive.  Moreover, I doubt that Small Business Trends encourages its small business readers to give away advice for free – (in fact, it does not). So why the double standard when that small business also happens to be a law firm?

Circling back to the free consult, I’m still a fan, at least in theory. Our ethics rules say that clients ought to have unfettered discretion in choosing a lawyer, and free consults are consistent with that goal. Nevertheless, lawyers seeking to honor that professional obligation don’t deserve to be taken advantage of which is exactly what Gillman’s article encourages. So thanks Small Biz Trends for ruining the free consult for all of us.