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Why Lawyers Shouldn't Give Free Consultations

4 mins

ALL, Law Practice Growth

I just read this article about offering free consultations. Carolyn Elefant is a fan of the free consultation (and, as you’ll see in a minute, I disagree). She writes:

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.

Here, I strongly disagree. Given the importance of the attorney-client relationship, it doesn’t make sense to spend time with potential clients who aren’t serious. Lowering the bar so far that anyone can take an attorney’s most precious thing - time, seems grossly disproportionate. If a client is serious, great - the time is warranted. But for anyone and everyone who could just be price shopping?

I also take issue with a basic premise here “clients seeking to vet different attorneys.” The key to running a premium business is to be the one doing the vetting. The strongest businesses aren’t the ones where the lawyer is begging for the business, it’s where the lawyer is vetting the client, whether or not the matter is a good one, whether it’s a good fit, whether they’ll pay on time. (Side note if this strikes you as odd: time and again I’ve worked with practices to flip from commodity to sought-after boutique- and it’s possible in every market, every practice area, every experience level).

As to “shelling out a few hundred bucks,” let’s look at this another way. If someone isn’t willing to pay before they have your valuable expertise, how likely are they to pay once you’ve done the work? What I’ve seen - consistently - is that vetting clients for the willingness to pay before the work is done is a great strategy to test out whether they’ll pay once the engagement starts.

Elefant continues:

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.

Yes, you’re at a competitive disadvantage, with respect to price-shoppers. Once again, it comes back to “who’s doing the choosing?” are clients choosing you, or are you choosing clients?

In practice areas where free consultations are widely used, it’s entirely possible to bypass the entire dog-and-pony competition by changing your marketing. Focusing on referral marketing. Using education based marketing to position as an authority.

As I often say, challenge conventional wisdom.

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Her third point:

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)

I’m not sure why this made the top three list. Sure, freemium nice if the one to three percent conversion of prospect to client number is interesting to you ... But I can’t say that sitting across from between thirty three and one hundred tire-kickers to land one client sounds terribly appealing.

Yes, freemium is a new (and old) trend, she’s right. But trend or no, the real question is this: what sales and marketing process leads to the best combination of net profits, high quality clients, and impact on clients you serve? So buzzword or no, measure by that. In my experience, and in helping others do the same, giving away valuable personal time in exchange for a sorta-kinda-maybe shot at landing business isn’t a good exchange.

Elefant then smartly advises her readers to tread carefully, referencing an article in Small Business Trends where would-be clients are advised how to use free consultations as a way to get free advice and shop around, wasting their valuable time for nothing.

She’s smart to be open to other perspectives. Here’s the response I posted to her article:

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.

What do you think? Let me know what you think by commenting below-

Raj Jha