It's a question as old as the business of law itself, and for new solo attorneys, it is an important part of your business plan. Do you charge for consultations?
Feelings on free consultations vary. Some think it is a great idea, as it gets potential clients in the door, where they can be wooed by your personality and professionalism. Others are wary of giving away "free" time, or have had too many experiences with people seeking free legal advice.
Here are some factors you should consider when setting your consultation rate.
Do you practice personal injury on a contingency basis? Have you ever watched one of those late-night ambulance chaser commercials? If so, you already know that you have no choice in the matter. Everyone else in the PI game is offering free consults, and really, if you are making payment contingent on success, there's no chance you'll get payment for a consultation.
Conversely, say you practice small business law. Rachel Rogers deals with Gen Y entrepreneurs and found that her free consultations had become pro bono sessions. Rogers writes that once, client even rapid-fired questions to maximize the amount of free advice in a consultation. In this practice area, the serious clients and serious entrepreneurs should see a reasonable consultation fee as an investment, rather than wasted money.
Are you a new attorney, with little to no reputation? Seasoned vets can rely upon word of mouth, referrals, and perhaps an established web presence and positive online reviews to drive paid consultations. They have the ability to demonstrate value before the client arrives.
If you are a recent grad, you may have "gumption" and "work ethic," but you could also be a brainless crook. A client has no way of knowing, prior to the consultation. You may need to suffer the freebies, and the window shoppers, just to get an established client base and reputation.
Rogers cleared out the freebies by offering a one-hour "strategy session," for $250. That fee is credited towards the client's monthly retainer if they sign up for ongoing services.
The first reputable firm I worked for, a family law firm, charged for consultations, but credited that towards the bill, no matter the service. It was more "non-refundable deposit" than fee. This discouraged pro se litigants from shopping for free advice, while ensuring clients that they wouldn't waste money on an introductory meeting.
Finally, a great suggestion I've heard tossed around is to require the return of intake paperwork before a free consultation is offered. You may still get the occasional free advice-seeker, but it cuts down on flakes, no-shows, and at least some of the freebies.