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.


  1. PSR on February 28, 2015 at 2:51 am

    Yes. I agree with free consultations limit. But may not be 30 minutes or so.

  2. Mike O'Horo on February 28, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    An alternative approach that I use is, “Pay me what you think it’s worth.” It’s very hard for someone to tell you to your face (or even phone voice) “Your help was worth nothing.” Yes, you’re still at risk for outliers who will chisel anyone for anything, but I suspect that’s an outlier behavior. Most people have some sense of fairness.

    You’ll definitely learn some important things, though. Over time, you’ll learn what your unaided (no prompts from you) perceived value is. It may reflect market ignorance, which, once identified, you can try to correct through your communications, educating the market. Or, you may find that you simply overvalue yourself. Maybe your preferred type of work has matured more than you were aware, and that it’s value and price have eroded without you knowing it. That can be a welcome alert to re-evaluate your practice. Maybe it needs to evolve to higher-value matters.

    If you experiment with PMWYTIW, you can’t provide any “guidance” at all. If you do, you’re trying to influence what they think it’s worth by what you think it’s worth.

  3. Raj Jha on March 3, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    I’ve never been a fan of the free consultation, because it doesn’t communicate the true value of the advice being given. It’s understandable why lawyers offer it – decreasing the threshold resistance to getting a client in the door – but that comes at a price, which is spending precious time with people who might not be serious.

    An alternative I recommend to the attorneys we work with is the refundable deposit. Set a rate for the consultation, and let the prospective client know that if they don’t value the session then all they have to do is ask for a refund. If they do want to move forward, it’s credited towards the engagement.

    The mere act of setting a price on the consultation gives it perceived value at the outset. Because of the refundable structure ultimately the client gets to determine whether or not they got value.

    I find that the mere act of collecting payment information weeds out those who are freebie seeking, and the risk-reversal of it being refundable makes sure attorneys always focus on giving real value in the session.

  4. Paul Spitz on March 6, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Free consultations are only a problem, I think, if the lawyer gives out too much information. For example, if a client comes in asking about doing an office lease, I can talk about some common issues, things to look for, etc., and that should help the client decide whether to hire me. I’m NOT going to slide an office lease template across the table. If the client wants me to draft, review, and/or negotiate the lease, he will have to pay me. The consult is an opportunity for me to establish expertise and build a rapport with the prospective client.

  5. Paul Spitz on March 6, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    What about two other options for getting the client to perceive a value in the consult?

    1. Tell the client there is a consultation fee, but it is waived because the client came from a particular referral source.

    2. Charge the consultation fee, but then credit that against any legal work done for the client when he signs up

  6. Mike O'Horo on March 6, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    An initial consultation is a marketing activity intended to bridge to a sales activity. The purpose of any marketing activity is to prove the need.

    Whichever of these consultation frameworks you embrace (and I think the suggestions here are all good), you want to accomplish three things:
    1) Get the prospect’s problem articulated clearly enough that you can visualize it. That means no abstract terminology. Think Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia”: “Explain it to me like I’m a six-year-old.”
    2) Elicit the prospect’s perceptions of the specific negative impact of the problem. The mnemonic is TIP: the impacts must be Tangible, Immediate, and Personal. Convert that into imputed economic impact to establish the perceived solution value, which sets up an ROI relationship with your fee.
    3) Facilitate the prospect making the decision to take action. Your biggest competitor is “no decision.”

  7. Bill on March 10, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Very interesting discussion. In my very personal and humble opinion, a potential client can tell, and will decide, in the first 10 minutes, if you are the right counsel for them. And you can tell in the first 15 minutes if they have made that decision. So I don’t bother with making anything a formal or “official” consultation. Just start talking; you both know pretty quickly if this is going anywhere or not. If not, wrap it up and move on. (At least in my state, you don’t need anything formal to establish privilege, a point I always make at the start of the discussion.) Bill

  8. JCLAWG on March 15, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    I stopped doing free consultations last year on a regular basis, for a couple of reasons. I found that I would schedule time for appointments take preliminary notes and then a client wouldn’t show or would call and say they hired someone else before meeting me. So lost time, lost work product, sometimes a lost weekend and just overall frustration led me to charging a fee.

    I was worried about quoting a consultation fee at first, but now I do it all the time. I find that the fee has actually helped my practice,yes I lose potential clients on occasion, but I find that clients seem willing to do it when I explain that the consultation is in depth.

    When I was doing free consultations I was always watching the clock. Once I take the fee ( and I collect it prior to beginning the consultation), there is more flexibility and time to discuss their issue, pricing options and build a rapport with the client. There are still some occasions where I give brief complimentary consultations via phone, but I now keep them brief, unless I know for sure they will retain me.

    The next issue for me on consultation fees is deciding whether to collect it in advance either over the phone or via website. I have mixed feelings about it, but I think doing so would totally wipe out the no-shows. Still debating that one.

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