From time to time, our office receives a call from someone who has been a client (or was a client of one of the two firms whose files I’ve taken over) who wants to see a different attorney. Sometimes this is because they live too far away to easily travel to my office, or because they’re moving to another state and need help from an attorney in that state .. or maybe there’s an estate planning attorney in the extended family now, and they want to use that person instead.
This also might happen because my personality or our office policies aren’t a good match for someone, or because we made a mistake that’s caused someone to lose confidence in our office. (I wish I could say that we’ve never made a mistake – but anyone who tells you that is lying, and I’d rather be an honest person who makes mistakes than a liar.)
Often, the people who are seeing a new attorney are worried that they’re going to offend me or hurt my feelings by going to another firm.
As a general rule, it won’t hurt my feelings. I don’t always have my “attorney” hat on – the rest of the time, I’m a client just like everyone else. I pay other attorneys to do legal work for me because, in the (alleged) words of Abraham Lincoln, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” I have a doctor and a dentist and interact with various other professionals in the course of my own life – and I know how it feels when I have to drive a long distance to take care of a simple matter, or if it feels like I just don’t see eye-to-eye with the other professional or their staff, or if I just feel like my needs have changed.
When I’ve only met with a client once (or never, and I’m just storing the file), I’m not going to take it personally, and neither does the staff in my office. The coming and going of clients and files is part of the natural flow of business – every month we get a few people who want to switch to our firm, and a few people who want to go somewhere else.
If I’ve worked with a particular client enough to really get to know them and like them as a person then yes, I’d feel bad, but I would still want that person to have representation they’re happy with versus sparing my feelings. I’m a professional, and nobody said that I’m entitled to have things go my way all of the time.
I am interested in the larger trend – if we consistently lose more files than we gain, for example, something is probably seriously wrong with what we’re doing – but at the individual level, we understand it’s not personal – unless it is, and then it’s a really good idea for you to switch firms.
So if you want or need to go somewhere else, there’s no hard feelings on our end. You’re welcome to come back someday if you want to – and if you don’t, we hope things work out well for you.
There are two other, slightly more cynical, reasons I don’t do free consultations.
The first is that there are some people in the world who have a lot of time on their hands, and as a result think their time isn’t valuable. These people also seem to think that my time isn’t valuable, either, and that it’s a good idea for us to spend a few hours talking about the vague possibility that at some point in the future they might potentially think about changing their trust, and/or putting together an estate plan. I’m really not interested in meeting with people who don’t think twice about meeting with 5 or 6 different attorneys (and burning up 10-12 hours of their time, and the attorneys’ time) before they’re even serious about planning.
The second is that once I’ve met with someone and discussed their situation, even in a “free consultation”, I am limited by the attorney ethics rules with respect to how I can interact with that person in the future. If, for example, someone comes to meet with me because they think they might be involved in a trust dispute and want to talk that over, and I discuss their circumstances with them, I will never be able to represent a different party with respect to that dispute, because I’ve already learned confidential information from the first person. Once I meet with that first person, I’m effectively disqualified from ever working on that matter for someone else, even if the first person doesn’t hire me. I think it’s only fair that I get paid for at least a little bit of my time if I’m going to agree to be permanently disqualified from ever working on a case in the future.
One relatively common question our receptionist gets on the phone is “Can I have a free consultation?” Our firm policy is that we do not do free consultations.
I understand that people don’t necessarily know what they want or need before they learn more about estate planning that people may want to get to know me before they commit to spending money to talk to me.
We do offer estate planning seminars in our onsite classroom where prospective clients can hear me speak for an hour or two, get an introduction to estate planning, and ask general questions in a public setting. This way, I can explain basic estate planning and answer common questions in a way that helps 20 or 30 people at a time, instead of 1 or 2 at a time.
I don’t do free consultations for several reasons. The biggest reason is that I have found they’re often a waste of my time – and I think that expectation that someone’s going to get legal advice for free creates an environment where a lot of clients’ time is wasted, too.
I saw a job posting recently that does a pretty good job of illustrating why I don’t think it’s likely that some other law firm’s “free consultation” is likely to be as helpful as it sounds. The law firm (a local San Jose firm, with remote offices in other Bay Area cities) is looking for another attorney to work in their offices. Here’s how they describe what they’re looking for:
We specialize in Family Law, Bankruptcy and Estate Planning. With 9 offices located throughout California, we are in immediate need of excellent attorneys who can sell and close new business. You will be responsible for conducting phone screens of new leads with the goal of setting face to face consultations in one of our 9 offices located throughout California. In addition, you will be responsible for conducting face to face consultation appointments with the goal of signing new clients! You will be an important part of lead conversion for the firm. If you have your law degree, enjoy working with people and have strong sales skills, then you should apply!
Judging from this job ad, I get the impression that if someone calls this law firm with questions, their phone call will be handled by an “attorney” acting in essentially a sales role, whose task is to “set a face to face consultation”; and then to conduct a face to face consultation appointment with the goal of signing up a new client. The ad goes on to say that they’re especially interested in attorneys with a “strong sales background.”
When you think about getting legal advice, do you think of yourself as a “lead”? Would you like to be “converted” by a person who’s been hired to “sell and close new business?”
When you look in the yellow pages or on the Internet and see someone offering “free consultation”, you should consider the possibility that the “consultation” you’re going to have will be a little like having a “free consultation” at a car dealership. Hey, those guys down on Auto Row will answer your questions all afternoon – not because they’re giving you a “consultation”, but because they’re giving you a sales pitch.
Do you suppose that a person who goes to a “face to face consultation” at a firm like this one is ever going to walk out of their appointment having been advised that their existing estate plan is just fine, or that they don’t need a complicated plan, or that they’ve got nothing to worry about?
Law firms and attorneys need money to survive. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. But if you work with a law firm that only gets paid when they talk someone into having new documents drafted or having documents filed in court . . what do you suppose the chances are that they’re going to find a reason to tell you that you need to have some new documents drafted, or that you’re going to need something filed in court?
Our conceptual model for appointments is that we’re like a doctor’s or a dentist’s office – if you go to your doctor or your dentist for a checkup, or with questions about a medical or dental issue you’re experiencing, your doctor or dentist is going to charge you for an office visit. In many ways, the best possible outcome for that doctor’s appointment or that dentist’s appointment is for you to learn that you don’t have something to worry about, that everything’s fine, or that you have a minor problem that can be solved relatively quickly and inexpensively.
When I switched from “free consultations” to “paid consultations”, I found that what I really like about paid consultations is that during my appointment with someone, I’m free to focus entirely on what’s going to be the best approach to solving their problem, whether or not it means I’m going to do some extra billable work. When I used to do “free consultations”, I found myself trying to predict, a few minutes into the appointment, whether or not there was really any billable work to do – and if there wasn’t, I had a strong motivation to get the client out of my office so I could move on to billable work. If there was work to do, the focus of the meeting often turned into trying to convince the client that they ought to have work done – which I found to be somewhat unnatural and unpleasant for the clients and for me.
If I spend all day, every day, having paid consultations where I either tell people (honestly) that their documents and estate plans are fine, and that no changes are needed, or drafting simple documents during our meeting which can be signed immediately, my office will run just fine. We’ll pay the rent and our employees and life will go on.
If a “free consultation” firm spends all day, every day, having free consultations where they tell people that they don’t need new documents, or that they need simple changes that can be completed during the meeting .. how long do you suppose that firm can stay in business?
How much of the fees charged to clients who do have work done are effectively subsidizing the clients who had “free consultations?” If you do need to have work done, do you want to pay for other people’s consultations, too? If the other people aren’t paying, and the attorney is getting paid, where do you suppose that money is coming from?